Tremendous story! It's a bit long but well worth it IMO.
Tremendous story! It's a bit long but well worth it IMO.
From the Los Angeles Times
ATTACKED BY A GRIZZLY | FIRST OF TWO PARTS
A hike into horror and an act of courage
A California man visiting Glacier National Park with his daughter instinctively puts himself between her and the rampaging bear's claws and teeth.
By Thomas Curwen
Times Staff Writer
April 29, 2007
Glacier National Park, Mont. — JOHAN looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn't sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.
It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.
Johan and Jenna had been on the trail little more than an hour. They had just followed a series of switchbacks above Grinnell Lake and were on a narrow ledge cut into a cliff. It was an easy ascent, rocky and just slightly muddy from yesterday's rain.
Johan took some pictures. Jenna pushed ahead. It was one of the most spectacular hikes they'd taken on this trip, a father-daughter getaway to celebrate her graduation from high school. There were some steps, a small outcropping, a blind turn, and there it was, the worst possibility: a surprised bear with two yearling cubs.
The bear kept pounding into him. He had to break away. To his right was the wall of the mountain, to his left a sheer drop. Slightly behind him, however, and 20 feet below the trail, a thimbleberry and alder patch grew on a small slope jutting from the cliff. As a boy growing up in Holland, Johan had roughhoused with his brother and had fallen into bushes. He knew it would hurt, but at least it wouldn't kill him.
So like a linebacker hurtling for a tackle, he dived for that thimbleberry patch. The landing rattled him, but he was OK. His right eye was bleeding, but he didn't have time to think about that. Jenna was now alone with the bear.
She had reached down to pick up the bear spray. The small red canister had fallen out of the side pocket of his day pack, and there it was, on the ground. But she couldn't remove the safety clip, and the bear was coming at her again. She screamed.
"Jenna, come down here," he yelled.
She never heard him. She was falling, arms and legs striking the rocky cliff, then nothing for seconds before she landed hard.
The bear did hear him, however. It looked over the cliff and pounced. Johan had never seen anything move so fast in his life. He tucked into a fetal position. The bear fell upon him, clawing and biting at his back. His day pack protected him, and his mind started racing again.
His daughter didn't have a pack. He always carried the water and snacks. If the bear got to her, it'd tear her apart.
He turned, swung to his right and let himself go. Only this time there wasn't a thimbleberry patch to break his fall. It was a straight drop to where Jenna had landed, and instead of taking the bear away from her, as he had hoped, he was taking the bear to her.
JOHAN Otter lived with his wife, Marilyn, and their two teenage daughters in a two-story home in a semirural neighborhood of Escondido, Calif. He worked as an administrator at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. He ran in marathons and bred exotic birds. He knew the love of his family, success at his job, good health. At 43, he had dreams of a long and happy life. But dreams are often upended. Johan knew this, and whenever possible, he tried to distance himself and his family from risk.
It was Aug. 25, 2005. Seven days earlier, Johan and Jenna had packed up the family pickup truck and driven north through Nevada and Utah. In September, she would begin her freshman year at UC Irvine. Hiking was their special bond. He was a runner, she was a dancer; they both were in good shape for the trail, and it wasn't unusual for Marilyn and Stephanie, their younger daughter, to stay home.
Johan and Jenna checked into a motor lodge on the east side of Glacier. Johan was eager to experience the wildness of the park, and the first night he did. A black bear, just outside the lodge.
For millenniums, bears have lurked on the periphery of everyday life, dark shadows just beyond the firelight. On this continent, they have been our respected competition and greatest threat. Even though close encounters with bears, especially grizzlies, are rare, they trigger a conditioned response, a reflex of fear and flight that is seldom called upon in modern life. Sometimes we get away. Sometimes we can't.
But most of all, bears inspire a deep fascination. Johan remembered how, as a boy, he would go with his family on vacations to Norway and how his parents, his brother and he had always wanted to see a bear. The curiosity never left him. Three years ago, during a trip to Canada with the family, he and Stephanie saw a cub. Marilyn and Jenna stayed back.
On this trip to Glacier, they had an ambitious hiking schedule, and they were disappointed when it rained their first full day. They contented themselves with driving to various sights. The next day was beautiful. The sun cut through scattered, misting clouds. Johan was eager to get out on the trail before anyone else. It was 7:30 a.m.
The path wound through a lush carpet of thimbleberry, beargrass and lilies growing beneath a mix of Engelmann spruce and Scotch pine. They skirted Lake Josephine, and in less than an hour, Johan and Jenna were above the tree line. Surrounding peaks were lightly dusted with snow. At one point Johan spotted a golden eagle trying to catch a thermal. They talked loudly, just as you're supposed to do in bear country. Jenna was trying to figure out how she could be both a dancer and a doctor. He wondered if he'd be able to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
As they made their way along the southern flank of Mt. Grinnell, a glacier-carved cliff that rises nearly 3,500 vertical feet from the valley floor, they fell silent, lost in the sounds of the wind and the water, the beauty of the moment. Ahead of them were the Gem and Salamander glaciers. A ribbon of water cascaded into the forest below. A river flowed into the turquoise stillness of Grinnell Lake.
Penstemon, columbines and fireweed bloomed amid the low-lying alder scrub. They passed through Thunderbird Falls, a landmark on the trail where a stream often pours from the cliff above onto a platform of flat stones. Today it was only wet and slippery, but the drop-off was unforgiving.
TEN minutes past the falls, they ran into the bear. In a matter of minutes, they had all tumbled 30 feet down a rocky V-shaped chute, landing on a ledge beneath the trail. Jenna had scrambled away, and the grizzly was on top of Johan.
The attack had just started, and it had been going on too long. He grabbed the bear by the fur on its throat. The feeling of the coarse hair, as on a dirty dog, was unforgettable, and for a moment the animal just stared at him, two amber-brown eyes, its snout straight in his face. It showed no emotion, no fear, no anger. There were just those eyes looking down at him.
Johan considered fighting. He reached to his left for a rock. A piece of shale, it crumbled in his fist. He tucked his knees to his chest and tried to cover his head.
The bear bit again and again on his right arm. So this is what it feels like to have your flesh torn, he thought, still trying to comprehend the attack. He tussled about, trying to avoid greater injury.
"Aaagh," he screamed.
Now the bear was tugging on his back. It felt as if someone were jumping up and down on him, and he found himself growing angry. Throw it off the mountain. If only he could throw it off the mountain.
He felt a sharp pressure on the top of his neck and his head. The bear was biting into his skull, chewing into the bone. This could be it, he thought. This could be his death, and his right hand was useless. He could not push the bear away.
If only this were a movie or one of those old episodes of "Bonanza" he used to watch on TV. He'd be a stuntman, and they'd stop shooting any time.
But this was real. He'd die if he didn't make another move, so he rolled and fell again, sliding 20 feet down the slope to a small ledge and then over that and onto a narrow shelf. Right foot, left foot. He landed on his feet. He was lucky he stopped. He wouldn't have survived the next long straight drop.
He was silent. The bear stood above him, unable to reach him. It felt good to be left alone. Water flowed down his back. Cold water. He'd fallen into a small stream, runoff from yesterday's rain.
Jenna heard the bear panting as it came closer to where she lay beneath the branches of a low-lying alder. She felt woozy from her fall. She had a knot on her head. Her back ached, and her ankle was bleeding.
She tried to stay tucked in, but when the bear got close to her face, she had to push it away. It nipped at the right corner of her mouth, at her hair, her right shoulder. Each bite was quick, followed by a slight jostle.
Her screams split the morning silence like an ax.
JOHAN pressed himself against the mountain. There was no room to sit or lie down. He heard Jenna, but he couldn't do anything. He would remember the sound as the worst he had ever heard, and then there was nothing. All was still.
He was wet and dirty, soaked with blood and starting to shiver. The attack had lasted at most 15 minutes. He looked at his right arm and saw exposed tendons. His medical training as a physical therapist told him no major nerves or arteries had been cut. They can sew that together, he thought, and that, and that.
Then he touched the top of his head and felt only bone. He stopped exploring. It was enough to know that his scalp had been torn off. His neck hurt. He wondered if something was broken.
He couldn't see out of his right eye. He reached up. It was full of blood and caked over. Was his eyeball hanging out? No, it was still in place. He carefully parted his eyelids. The sweet turquoise stillness of Grinnell Lake shimmered nearly 1,500 feet below him. He could see. He was relieved.
"Jenna," he eventually called out.
She had played dead, and the bear had moved on. She assessed her injuries. A bite on her shoulder as deep as a knuckle. Lower lip torn down to her chin. Hair caked with blood.
Her father's voice was the best sound she'd ever heard.
"Are you OK?" he asked.
"I'm OK. How are you?"
"I'm bleeding a lot." He thought of his own injuries and of his daughter's appearance. "How's your face? Did it get you?"
"Just my mouth."
"And your eyes?"
He could tell by the sound of her voice that she was OK. Thank you, God.
He gazed up into the sky above Mt. Gould on the far side of the valley. He thought of the people he knew who were dead. His mother and father. Thank you, Mom, and thank you, Dad, for being an energy that he could draw on. Somehow it made him less afraid.
And thank you, Sophie. She was a patient of his, an 80-year-old woman who had died last year. They had grown close as Johan worked with her. She would complain — I'm going to die, she'd say — and he'd tell her to be quiet. You're not going to die, Sophie. And to think he nearly had.
And thank you, Steve, his father-in-law, Marilyn's dad, who had become his own dad in a way.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Then he called back to Jenna. "It got me kind of bad."
It was the only time he told her how he felt. After that, he turned stoic. No complaining. No despairing. He knew his dad would have reacted the same way. He chalked it up to being Dutch: You take care of yourself and your children. Jenna would do the same.
Together, unprompted, they began to call out.
GLACIER National Park straddles the Continental Divide. Popularly thought of as North America's Switzerland, famous for its snowy peaks, alpine meadows, rivers and lakes, the park attracts nearly 2 million visitors each year. On the east side of the park, the Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the most popular day hikes.
Johan knew he couldn't stand here much longer. He took off his day pack and camcorder. His digital camera was gone, lost in the chaos. He pulled a jacket out of his pack and put the hood over his head. The night before, he'd read a book about bear attacks: how a woman in Alaska had stopped the bleeding of her scalp by covering her head. He also thought it might be easier on Jenna or anyone else who might happen to see him.
He wanted to climb to the ledge above. He didn't know how he'd carry his pack and camcorder. Then it came to him, what they say on airplanes. Leave your luggage and take care of yourself. It made sense. He clambered and crawled off the narrow shelf and up to the ledge. He felt dizzy, so he sat down.
Johan and Jenna alternated their calls. Jenna had decided to stay where she was. She too was dizzy and uncertain of her injuries. Perched on the side of the mountain, about 75 feet apart, they looked down into the valley. Their cries disappeared in the vast open space. It was windy and cold, and the quiet seemed unreal after the intensity of the attack.
Then Jenna called out. "Dad, the boat just got to the dock. I see people getting off." It was a water taxi that ran a regular service across Lake Josephine.
Johan knew that with the arrival of the boat, hikers would soon be streaming along the trail and their shouts would be heard. He was tired. He stopped yelling and tried not to think about how badly injured he was. Nothing a little surgery can't fix, he told himself. Besides, he was alive, and his daughter was fine.
Amid the isolation and the cold, he grew sore and stiff and numb. Lying down, sitting up, nothing helped. Forty-five minutes later, he heard Jenna talking with someone. She called to him. "Dad, there are people here now. They're getting help."
Still it seemed like forever. Then Johan saw a man cutting through the bushes and sliding down toward him. The man's eyes were wide open. The expression said everything.
"Are you OK?" the man asked.
"Do you see a camera?" Johan replied.
Jim Knapp was surprised by the question, but very little was making sense.
Knapp and his wife had started their hike that morning a little past 8, well ahead of the water taxi. After an hour on the trail, they heard what sounded like a coyote or a hawk or some animal being attacked. Then there was more, and it sounded human. They started running. Someone must have fallen or sprained an ankle.
Knapp told Johan he would look for the camera, but his attention was focused on the injured man before him. It was the most gruesome sight he had ever seen.
Blood covered Johan's face. His arms and legs oozed blood. His voice and sentences were jerky and repetitive. He reminded Knapp of Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman," and with his sweat shirt pulled up over his head, he looked like Beavis in an episode of "Beavis and Butthead."
"Jenna's OK," Knapp said, as he began to get a sense of Johan's injuries. He noticed the day pack — but no camera — on the shelf beneath them, and he climbed down to retrieve it. Inside were a sweat shirt and four water bottles. He covered Johan and tried to make him drink. He took off his T-shirt and wrapped it around a deep gash on Johan's leg. He laid out some nuts and a granola bar and took some water up to Jenna.
Then Johan saw a girl. She was sliding down to him. Her name was Kari.
Kari Schweigert and Heidi Reindl had been car-camping in Glacier. They were just starting on an 11-mile hike when they ran into Jim Knapp's wife, running down the trail, screaming for help.
Then there were two teenage boys. Johan couldn't keep track of everyone, but one of the boys — the one who wore a beanie — did get his camera. It was the camcorder, and Johan was glad to see it. He was also glad that people were finally getting there, but he felt bad for them. He knew stumbling upon a bear attack — and finding him as bloody as he was — couldn't be easy for them. A fall or a sprain, sure, but a bear attack? He tried to tell himself that it would be OK. He tried to console himself. If he and Jenna had not been attacked, then these other hikers would have.
What can we do, everyone asked. How can we help?
The rock at the back of his head felt like it was digging into his skull. He squirmed about. He wanted them to help him sit up, but they didn't want to. They were worried about his neck.
Then he'd have to do it himself. He simply wanted to sit up, have a drink of water and then maybe lie down again.
But he was fading.
VOICES told him that help was on the way, only he was losing interest. He didn't want to deal with any of this anymore. It was all too much: wondering how they'd get him and Jenna off the mountain; wanting to be cleaned up from the dirt and sticky blood; saddened that their trip was ending this way.
Kari Schweigert sat beside him, talking. Her curly hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was in a tank top; Johan was wearing her jacket. He was shaking and numb with cold.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"The pain is OK," he said. "I'd just like to take a nap."
Then she started to move in closer to him. She knew he was cold. She said she wanted to warm him up. She angled around him and covered his abdomen and chest with her body, her legs off to a side.
"Are you sure about this?" he asked. He didn't want her to get covered with blood; it would be impossible to wash out.
She couldn't cover him completely, but she did shield him from the wind. It was a moment he would never forget. How strange, he thought, to be hiking along on this trail one moment, thinking about running in a marathon, and then suddenly not being able to walk, being so dependent upon strangers, and now this girl so close to him, so tender and different from the savagery of the attack.
His mind kept going back to Jenna. Everyone told him that she was not as badly injured as he was. He felt guilty. Why had he wanted to go hiking here? Why wasn't he a better parent?
Schweigert kept talking to him. She told him not to fall asleep. It made sense. He knew he'd lost a lot of blood, and he knew he was in shock. The wash of voices and movement of people around him, once reassuring, began to blur.
A park ranger and a dozen hikers were on the trail above them. The ranger radioed a report on Johan and Jenna's status to the ranger station at Many Glacier, where an incident commander was assembling a rescue team.
A few of the hikers peered over the edge.
"Do you need anything?" they yelled.
Someone tucked one under Johan's head.
His neck felt broken.
"WHAT'S your name?"
"Where are you?"
"Glacier National Park."
"What time of day is it?"
The name badge said Katie. She wore the green and gray uniform of the park service. She had slid down the slope, balancing a medical kit and a shotgun in her hands, and once she determined that he was alert and oriented, she started dressing his wounds.
Katie Fullerton had pulled into the Many Glacier parking lot expecting just another summer day. Then she heard about the attack. She and another ranger were ordered to get to Johan and Jenna as soon as possible. Since opening in 1910, Glacier National Park has had only 10 bear fatalities, and they were enough.
The incident commander at Many Glacier had put a call out for additional rangers, some stationed on the west side of the park, 70 miles — a two-hour drive — away. A helicopter, chartered from Minuteman Aviation, would ferry those rangers to the site of the attack and would be used to shuttle equipment and personnel up to the mountain.
Whup, whup, whup.
Katie Fullerton looked up. At 9,000 feet, the white chopper had negotiated a U-shaped notch in the Garden Wall, a narrow filigree of stone crowning the Continental Divide. As it drew close, it circled, looking for a place to land. Johan and Jenna Otter could not have fallen in a less accessible place.
Three hours had passed since the attack, and Johan's metabolism was slowing down. The blast of adrenaline triggered by the attack was long gone; the 15-minute torrent of thought and reaction had dissipated in a miasma of pain, discomfort and boredom. Why was the rescue taking so long?
Crashing mentally and emotionally, he knew he needed to stay warm and awake. Gusts of wind ghosted along the cliff; temperatures shot from warm to freezing as clouds drifted beneath the sun. Hikers on the trail were tossing down energy bars, water and more outerwear. A ranger was talking on the radio.
A second ranger crouched beside Johan. He had arrived with nearly 50 pounds of gear, including a life-support pack with IV fluids, medications and an oxygen tank, and he began cutting away Johan's jackets and clothing. He introduced himself as Gary, Gary Moses. Johan appreciated his calm and confident manner.
Moses explained that the plan was to place Johan and Jenna on litters, have them lifted up to the trail and then carried down to a landing zone, where the chopper would take them to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Kalispell, Mont., in the Flathead Valley on the west side of the park.
Rangers on the trail set up a belaying system. They knew they had to move fast. Moses took Johan's vitals. His blood pressure was 80 over 30, his pulse 44, his temperature dropping.
Moses prepared an IV line. Johan tried to lie still, but he was shivering uncontrollably. Then he heard something. It was Katie Fullerton; she was crying. The sound startled him at first.
"Do you want to stand down?" Moses asked his fellow ranger.
She shook her head.
Johan was glad. She had worked hard to make him comfortable and safe.
This was her first season as a patrol ranger, her first major trauma. Just last year, she'd been collecting user fees, and she had grown up near the park. She and her family had hiked these trails. This could just as easily have been her father.
Her tears reminded Johan how grave his situation was.
THE helicopter was making a second landing, and all Johan could think was: Hurry up. A second medic had joined Moses and Fullerton.
"How's Jenna?" It was his steady refrain.
"There're people with her."
Moses and the other medic put a C-collar around Johan's neck and got ready to insert a urinary catheter. Johan reminded them about a scene in "Seinfeld" in which an embarrassed George Costanza is caught naked and complains about "shrinkage." They burst out laughing, and Johan relaxed a little. This is who he was: not just a bloodied man but someone always there with an easy line, ready to lighten the mood, to give to others.
Moses reassessed the rescue plan. It had taken nearly an hour to find a vein and get the IV started. Carrying Johan out, lifting him to the trail and then down to the helicopter landing zone was going to be too traumatic, and the afternoon was getting on.
He thought a helicopter could lift Johan directly off this ledge, in a rescue known as a short haul. It would be quicker but riskier. Still, he didn't see any way around it. He radioed in his recommendation. The incident commander agreed. They called in the rescue helicopter operated by the hospital in Kalispell.
As they waited, Johan remembered an Air Force chopper that had crashed during a rescue on Mt. Hood little more than three years earlier. Everything — the foundering, the dipping, the rolling down the slope in a cascade of snow — had been televised on the evening news.
It made him nervous.
"Am I going to die?" Johan asked.
"You're not going to die up here," the second medic said.
RED against the blue sky and white clouds, the short-haul helicopter was easier to spot than the Minuteman.
"Hear that?" Gary Moses looked out over the valley. "That's the sound of your rescue."
Pilot Ken Justus adjusted the foot pedals and hand controls to bring the Bell 407 closer to the cliff. Travis Willcut, the flight nurse, sat next to him, calling out positions, monitoring radio traffic. Jerry Anderson, a medic, dangled 150 feet beneath them on a rope with a red Bauman Bag and a body board at his waist.
Piloting a helicopter at moments like this is like pedaling an exercise bike on the roof of a two-story building while trying to dangle a hot dog into the mouth of a jar on the ground. Lying on his back, Johan watched.
The IV had kicked in. Though stiff and still cold, he was wide awake and in no pain. Anticipation was everything, and he remembered feeling a little afraid. He hated roller coasters and worried about his stomach.
"You'll have the best view of your life," Moses said, hiding his worry. He knew getting Anderson in would be tricky. Because helicopters can't cast sharply defined shadows on steep terrain, pilots flying short-haul missions have trouble judging closing speeds and distances.
Anderson, dangling at the end of the rope, had a radio in his helmet. He was using it to direct Justus lower and closer to Johan. Abruptly, the radio died.
"I'm at your 11 o'clock position, a mile out," Moses broke in with his radio, once he understood the problem. "Half mile, 12 o'clock."
"Do I need to come up or down?"
"Up about 10 feet."
Then just as Justus got closer, he caught Anderson's shadow on the ledge and set him down about 20 feet to the right of Johan. The other rangers shielded Johan from the rotor wash and dust.
Anderson unhooked himself. Justus moved the helicopter away. With the rangers' help, Anderson slid the body board beneath Johan and strapped the Bauman Bag around him. He waved Justus back in.
"We're ready to lift."
"Roger, ready to lift."
Johan couldn't tell when he was off the ground. Dangling with Anderson beside him, 150 feet beneath the helicopter, all Johan would see was Anderson's face, the blue sky and the belly of the chopper. The wind whistled around him.
"Woo hoo!" The hikers and rangers on the mountain started cheering and clapping.
With Johan and Anderson still beneath him, Justus accelerated down the valley to the helipad at Many Glacier. A waiting crowd was asked not to take pictures. Johan was transferred into an ambulance while Justus went back to pick up Jenna. Finally Johan was out of the wind and in a warm place.
Then he heard the news.
"Jenna is here," someone said.
"Hi, sweetie," he called out as they prepared to fly him to the medical center in Kalispell. With his head wrapped in bandages, mummy slits for his eyes and the C-collar on his neck, Johan couldn't see her. "Make sure when they call Mom that you talk to her."
He knew he wouldn't be the one making that call.
"Otherwise she'll totally freak out," he said.
From the Los Angeles Times
ATTACKED BY A GRIZZLY
Pain, gratitude and a long fight back
His daughter was safe and he was recovering, but months later, he knew the bear still had him.
By Thomas Curwen
Times Staff Writer
April 30, 2007
HIS halo was a cage, and all Johan Otter could do was stare out through the carbon graphite rods that pinned his head in place.
If he slept, he dreamed, and the dreams bordered on nightmares. He lay in a passageway somewhere between a gym and a locker room. People came and went. He didn't mind the traffic, only he was puzzled by a black object in the middle of the room. It looked like the Batmobile, dark and sinister. What was it?
Uncertainty brought a tinge of adrenaline and a flood of panic. Trapped by this metal contraption locking his head to his shoulders, treatment for a broken neck, he couldn't move. The walls of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle closed around him. He tried to find the call button, but it was lost in the bedding. He was alone. He screamed for help.
Morphine for the pain. Valium and Ativan for the anxiety.
Prescriptions were easy. Patience was the hardest part, and though he had been trained as a physical therapist and knew all about the challenge of recovering from trauma, he still found himself spiraling into restless despair. He asked a doctor if he was going to die.
"No way," the doctor said. "You're going to live. You're already over the hump."
Six days before, on Aug. 25, 2005, Johan, 43, and his daughter Jenna, 18, had been hiking in Glacier National Park. She had just graduated from high school in Escondido. It was a father-daughter trip, and they had surprised a grizzly bear and its two cubs on the trail to Grinnell Glacier. Trying to flee, they had fallen about 70 feet down a rocky cliff.
The bear had followed. For 15 minutes, it attacked them savagely, especially Johan, who stood between it and Jenna. Shivering, cold and in shock, they spent nearly six hours on a mountainside as the National Park Service worked to rescue them by helicopter. Johan was the first one lifted off.
At Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Kalispell, Mont., the first place he was treated, the doctors were shocked that he had survived. His mauling was the worst they had ever seen. He had no scalp. From his hairline to the base of his neck, the bear had torn off everything. There were teeth marks in the cranium. A muscle was detached from his right eye, where there was a blowout fracture. He had broken ribs. His body was pockmarked with deep lacerations and puncture wounds.
When a bear attacks defensively, it behaves like a nipping dog. The bites are quick, deep and incessant. But in fighting to shield Jenna, Johan had enraged the bear, so that each bite became a shake, extending some puncture wounds into longer, ragged gashes. The bear's jaws were so strong that its teeth plunged deep enough to tear connective tissue from muscle. The teeth stopped only at the bone.
Johan was also at risk for a fatal infection from bacteria in a bear's mouth. He was given a tetanus shot and started on Rocephin, an antibiotic favored in treating bear attacks.
He was relieved to be off the mountain, to know that Jenna was safe and would soon be arriving at the hospital.
Thank you. Thank you so much. He kept thanking the hospital staff because it was all he could do. The bright lights and hovering doctors felt familiar, reminiscent of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he worked. And he was clean, the blood and dirt removed.
How had he ever created so much trouble for everyone? He was sorry for that. He never thought of himself as deserving so much attention, especially from complete strangers.
X-rays and CT scans confirmed that his spine was broken in two places: at the base of his skull and at the prominence below his neck. The news unnerved him. This could mean paralysis. If he lived, would he walk again? Would he ever return to his favorite activity, running?
By the time Jenna was taken into the Kalispell emergency room, the medical staff had decided to send Johan to Harborview. His injuries were too complicated for Kalispell. As attendants wheeled her in, they brought the two gurneys side by side. Jenna had a jagged laceration on the right side of her face from her mouth to her chin. She also had a deep wound on the right shoulder and one on the back of her head.
They unstrapped her head, but her neck was too sore for her to look at him directly. Out of the corner of an eye, she saw his bandages. She started to cry.
"Thank you," Jenna said, for saving her life, and then, "I'm sorry."
AT Harborview, Johan lost himself in a whirl of exams, tests and X-rays. He stared at the array of IV hangers on tracks dangling overhead and waited for surgery. He closed his eyes, his head wrapped in bloody bandages, and when he opened them again, his wife, Marilyn, was standing there. She had caught the last flight out of San Diego and taken a shuttle to the hospital. It was midnight.
"I'm sorry," he said, starting to cry.
"There's nothing to be sorry about." She reached for his hand.
Johan believed that he had hurt Marilyn, hurt her because he hadn't been able to protect their daughter, hurt her because Jenna was still at the hospital in Kalispell, 350 miles away, hurt her because he, too, was hurt. He felt accountable.
"I don't have my gift for you," he said. Her birthday had been two days earlier. Earlier in the trip, he and Jenna had bought her some photographs of the Grand Tetons at an art fair in Jackson, Wyo., but they were in the truck and the truck was in Montana.
Marilyn started to cry. "You are my present."
The nurses left the room.
"Is Jenna OK?" he asked.
"Yes." She didn't want to worry him.
"I was fighting for her," he said. "I tried to protect her."
"It's all right," she said.
The emergency room staff brought in a heater blanket, known as a bear hugger, and gave it to Marilyn. She wrapped herself in it and continued to hold his hand.
I'm safe now, he thought. It wasn't until 3 a.m. that he was rolled into an operating room. The surgery lasted eight hours. Wherever the bear had bit him, the surgical team assessed the damage and, whenever possible, removed traces of contamination and cleaned the edges of the wound, cut away dead tissue, cauterized blood vessels and, most important, left his wounds open for daily monitoring and cleaning.
Afterward, a plastic surgeon consulted with Marilyn. He warned her again about the risk of infection.
She broke down. On the way from their home to the airport the night before, she had seen on the side of a freight train a sketch of the grim reaper. It was an image she wouldn't forget.
AS Johan lay on his back in intensive care, wet bloody gauze on his head, saline rolling down his neck, he thought through a haze of helplessness how much he wanted to be normal again. He wanted to run, stretch his legs and feel his body working in easy motion.
He knew the first obstacle was his fractured neck. Every time he was moved — for X-rays, for surgery — he feared the worst. Please be careful, he said.
He had a fracture of the second cervical vertebra, often called a hangman's fracture. It was in the same part of the neck that Christopher Reeve broke. Johan's fracture had five distinct breaks, the probable result of the bear shaking his skull. He also had a fracture of the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae that was even worse. On film, it looked as if someone had tried to push one vertebra onto the other, causing a misalignment that could irreversibly damage his spinal cord.
For such fractures, there were two treatments: fusing the bones in a surgical procedure or wearing a halo. From the beginning, Johan insisted on a halo. He had worked with patients with upper spine fusions. He had seen how limited their range of motion was. He considered it nothing less than a lifelong disability.
But a halo gave him hope. Fractures could heal, scar tissue could serve as cartilage and, in time, if it worked, he could be himself again. His orthopedist agreed. Fusion would be their fallback position.
Johan was happy when an orthopedics team brought in the shoulder harness, halo ring and supporting rods. They pulled the curtain around his bed, propped him up and started to set screws into his skull.
The pain was instantaneous. Johan gasped. They had forgotten to apply lidocaine, a numbing solution.
They backed out the screws and gave him four injections: two above the eyebrows and two behind the ears. Then they torqued the screws into his skull to 8 inch-pounds of pressure. The pain was far beyond the reach of the lidocaine. Johan thought he heard bones crack. It was a feeling he'd always remember. His head felt as if his skull would split like a walnut. Then came a raging headache, a feeling of claustrophobia and panic attacks.
The best he could do was count his birds. Back home, Johan bred exotics in aviaries outside his house. He imagined how he might pair them up. He considered genetic tables and color mutations, the more difficult and complicated the better, anything to get his mind out of the moment.
But the moment never ended.
LYING in bed, soothed by the Ativan, Johan watched the sweep of the second hand on a wall clock to his right, then the minutes and the hours. He became untethered and drifted and slept and dreamed, certain that the day had turned to night, and the night to day — but only an hour would have passed, sometimes just 15 minutes. A day took a week, tomorrow forever.
As helpless as he felt, lying in bandages, unable to move, he knew that everything was happening for the best. Call it stoic optimism. It was something he'd learned growing up in Amsterdam, where the boys in the neighborhood teased him and the jokes turned to fights. He stood his ground and never let anyone know how much the punches hurt. The experience toughened him, taught him to be resourceful and adaptable, to focus on what he had and not what he lacked.
Marilyn buoyed his spirits with her steadiness. She had taken a leave of absence from the high school where she taught, and she adapted to life at Harborview. When Johan craved something fresh to eat, she walked to Pike Place Market and bought blueberries and blackberries. She held his hand the day that Nicholas Vedder, chief of plastic surgery, introduced himself and explained how he planned to reconstruct his scalp.
"We need to remove the latissimus muscle," Vedder said, "and transplant it to cover your skull."
Johan knew this meant the latissimus dorsi, a long muscle on the back that extends from the armpit to the hip. The transplanted muscle would provide its own active blood circulation.
"And our success rate is around 95%," Vedder said. He also mentioned the risks: excessive blood loss, complications from the anesthesia and, of course, clotting that could lead to the loss of the transplant.
Johan reached for Vedder's hand and squeezed it. He was grateful to be alive and to know that his daughter was all right.
"Good luck," he said. "I trust you."
Vedder checked his schedule. He had an opening in the morning.
VEDDER began by making a 3-inch incision just in front of Johan's right ear, where he found a small artery and vein network known as the superficial temporal. For three hours he worked, separating the vessels from the dense and fibrous tissue that surrounded them.
Meanwhile, the surgical team prepared Johan's skull, which for five days had gone unprotected and exposed. Grinding it with a burr until it began to bleed, they brought it back to life.
Now Vedder cut along Johan's back. Slowly separating the latissimus dorsi from connective tissue that held it to his rib cage, the team lifted this flank steak-like muscle from Johan. Vedder dissected the connecting subscapular artery and vein.
The clock was running. The team had two hours to reinfuse the muscle with blood or it would die. They flushed it with blood thinner, bathed it in an icy saline slush and stretched it like taffy over Johan's scalp. The contour wasn't perfect, but Vedder knew that as it atrophied from disuse, the muscle would conform to the bony surface of the skull.
An 8-foot-tall surgical microscope was wheeled in. Looking through a lens that makes a human hair look like rope, Vedder connected the subscapular vessels to the superficial temporal vessels. Each is no wider in diameter than a cocktail straw. Each took 20 stitches. As Vedder pulled them together, the blood vessels bunched up as if they'd been hemmed with a gathering stitch. The bunching would act as a seal.
Then Vedder removed the clamps. Blood from Johan's carotid artery pulsed through the array of vessels, then infused the muscle. A Doppler probe beside the vein picked up the whooshing sound, like gusts of wind. For the next week it would serve as an audio-warning system. Silence would mean a clot had formed and the transplant was in jeopardy.
Vedder and his team covered the muscle with skin from Johan's right thigh and stapled it in place. Johan Otter had a new scalp.
Ten hours had passed. He awoke in recovery and was soon wheeled into what the hospital called the Tropicana Room, heated to 80 degrees. Anything colder might make the blood vessels constrict and the blood clot.
Johan lay sweating under a single sheet. He painted pictures in his mind of Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons. How he loved that stretch of highway from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Yellowstone National Park where the Rocky Mountains rose from the open plain in jagged grandeur.
Would he ever see it again?
"DAD, I need to thank you for saving my life."
He looked up into Jenna's face. He remembered thinking how healthy she looked, and she was smiling. He had expected worse.
Jenna had flown in from Kalispell the day before. Marilyn had met her at the airport gate, where they held each other for the first time since the attack. Jenna made a joke about how good she looked, what with her swollen face, her arm in a sling, her back in a brace, holding a cane and walking with a limp. Her mother smiled.
You don't need to thank me, Johan said, but her words made him proud. They told him that she understood what he had tried to do, that there was no recrimination or blame, no "why did you take me hiking there?"
Johan was transferred to a private room. He had grown accustomed to it all — the intrusions, the tests, the constant interruptions — and he was making progress. He walked on his own. He watched music videos on television and tried to exercise his legs.
His only setback occurred during another surgery, when the ophthalmologist couldn't find the torn muscle behind his right eye. It had contracted too deeply into his skull. But Johan refused to be discouraged.
Not that life as a patient was simple. Being dependent on others never was, but Johan managed. Perhaps his stoical nature helped. Perhaps his inherent optimism. Perhaps it was his experience as a physical therapist or his training as a marathon runner.
Or maybe it was the spreading reputation that he was the man who had thrown himself in front of a grizzly bear to save his daughter. As his story circulated in the hospital, staffers marveled and wondered if they could make the same sacrifice.
On Sept. 9, 15 days after the attack and just hours before a hospital plane would fly him and Marilyn home to San Diego, Harborview arranged a press conference. From the beginning, Johan's story had caught the attention of the media. Bear attacks always do, and initially neither Johan nor Marilyn had wanted to talk. Now that he was doing better, they hoped to shut down speculation and curiosity by letting the story out.
Johan sat in a wheelchair, still confined by the halo, and answered questions. Marilyn knew he was something of a ham, and when the bright lights and cameras finally shut down, he turned to Vedder.
"How did I do?" he asked.
"You did wonderful," the surgeon said.
Close to 800 newspapers and TV stations picked up the story. Howard Stern declared Johan, because he had fought a grizzly, a legitimate "bad ass." Oprah, Ellen, Montel and Maury were soon calling.
Five days later, he and Jenna went on the "Today" show and "Good Morning America," and the more he told the story of the attack, the more he found himself being cast as a hero for taking on a bear. It was a role he assumed with a curious combination of modesty and pride.
"A good attitude will only get you so far."
Johan listened. No one had said this to him before. He was back at Scripps Memorial Hospital, but instead of walking the halls as an administrator, he was a patient.
"More has to happen. Like a lot of luck and healing," said Scott Barttelbort, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who had been asked by Scripps' chief medical officer to check on Johan. The patient, he said, was "one of our own."
Barttelbort's exam begun with the scalp. Johan recalled how soft the doctor's hands were.
A beautiful reconstruction, Barttelbort thought, but as he slowly tallied the wounds, he came to realize how severe this mauling had been. Twenty-eight lacerations, 28 opportunities for infection, which didn't even count the flap, the torn eye muscle and the fractured neck. Recovery would be more complicated than anyone could imagine.
Johan found Barttelbort's starkly pragmatic words strangely comforting. He liked Barttelbort, recognized his determined and knowledgeable manner and could see that the doctor took an interest in him as a person, not just a clinical case.
Scripps scheduled more surgeries. During the first, a reconstructive eye specialist found and reattached Johan's torn eye muscle. The white and the purple orchids in his room had never looked better.
A new set of X-rays, CT scans and MRIs confirmed that the halo had stabilized the vertebrae in his neck. But Johan knew his trauma was not just physical.
Disassociation had become his protection. Nightmares lurked beneath each day's progress. He kept them at bay by focusing on his life, on Jenna and on the good that had befallen them. One day, a psychiatrist came into his room for a consultation and noted that Johan appeared a bit "too happy," that his affect, slightly hypomanic, was "mildly inappropriate."
"I have had a lot of visitors," Johan told him, adding, "I do not want anybody going away from here feeling bad."
But by trying to make others around him feel comfortable, the psychiatrist concluded, Johan put on too many smiles, which could easily dissolve into tears.
Barttelbort was also concerned about Johan, who seemed to expect too much of himself. Barttelbort wondered if it was a problem that Johan was being attended to by co-workers and didn't feel comfortable enough to let his guard down. Or that Johan had been cast as the courageous fighter of the bear and defender of his daughter.
Probably it was a little of everything.
AFTER nearly two weeks of daily wound management, Barttelbort decided it was safe to start closing some of Johan's deeper lacerations, a process that required every puncture and tear to be enlarged, essentially made worse, in order for them to be sewn shut.
Heal and disappear were Barttelbort's goals, for he knew that each visible scar would remind Johan of the attack, make him self-conscious and slow his integration into the world. He also knew that Johan was wearing down, so he worked quickly in the operating room, cutting and cleaning, judging how good the tissue was, how efficient the circulation, before closing each wound.
As the surgery wore on, Barttelbort knew he was exacting a toll. After six hours, nearly twice as long as expected, Johan woke up in the recovery room exhausted. Four days later he got up in the middle of the night, shivering, the first sign of an infection. Three weeks after the attack, he was still fighting the grizzly. By morning, he had a temperature of 101. Barttelbort put him back on wound care and reopened the wounds that looked the reddest and least healthy.
Johan was discouraged and scared. He knew too much not to be. His infection, known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, occurs primarily in hospitals and nursing homes and kills more than 60,000 people a year. Fortunately, tests revealed that it hadn't spread to his neck or skull, where he was most vulnerable.
Still, as Barttelbort watched Johan — with his halo, a patch on his eye, three suction machines purring away at his open wounds, with his multiple lacerations, a reconstructed scalp and a raw right thigh — he knew everything could fall apart in an instant.
But Johan battled back. A powerful antibiotic, vancomycin, delivered by way of a long catheter running from his arm to his heart, knocked back the infection, and on a Saturday, Sept. 24, four weeks and two days after the bear attack, he was discharged from Scripps. Marilyn had ordered a hospital bed for the living room, and as he lay there watching television, sleeping, slowly walking around, he came to realize what the grizzly had cost him.
There were trails he had hoped to hike in Glacier. There was his ambition to run in the Boston Marathon. There was his strawberry-blond hair, the muscle on his back, his daughter who was already away at UC Irvine. There was any illusion that life was predictable.
As he looked around, he saw other moments that he could not control, moments that can ruin expectations and tear apart all plans.
When his halo came off in November, he found himself crying alone in the car one day. He was scared to be normal and afraid that with the halo gone, he was more vulnerable than ever.
In January, he went back to work and found steady reminders of life's fragility. During the first week, a colleague died. At the funeral, Johan saw himself in the casket.
Slowly, though, he found his confidence. He started to run again and to think more about the future. One weekend, Jenna came home from school. They went shopping and, for the first time, they didn't mention the bear. They grew proud of their scars.
In the spring, he was invited to Kalispell to a banquet for the helicopter service that rescued him from the mountain. Before dinner, he took the stage and gave the opening prayer.
"Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to give this blessing for these individuals you brought to our rescue," he spoke into the microphone. "Many of these people here are my true friends. Please guide their hand to reach and touch many more lives."
In June, he ran in San Diego's Rock 'n' Roll marathon, finishing in 3 hours, 39 minutes and 48 seconds. But it was nine minutes too slow to qualify for Boston. The next day he was depressed.
The bear still had him.
LAST summer, 11 months after the attack, Johan returned to Glacier National Park and set out again on the trail where he and Jenna had encountered the grizzly. He wanted to see Grinnell Glacier. Marilyn joined him, as did Gary Moses, one of the rangers who helped rescue him.
Johan wore the same running shoes that he had had on during the attack. He carried the same camcorder. As he hiked through the woods, a wave of familiarity swept over him. Past Lake Josephine, the sound of waterfalls in the distance broke the stillness. He remembered how quiet it had been when he and Jenna had passed through here, when all they heard was the wind and the water.
He took photos of wildflowers, marveled at the scale of the park and, as the trail rose in a series of switchbacks, he pointed to a moose walking below in the shallows of Grinnell Lake, its wake cutting a perfect V in the turquoise water.
He looked at the surrounding mountains. "It's cool that we survived."
He began to recount the story. Here is where I wanted to take another picture. Here is where Jenna grew impatient with me. Here is where I took that last shot of her.
He started to cry.
"I'm a little surprised at how emotional this is," he said. "I don't know why."
He paused to gaze out upon a field of ankle-high wildflowers, the pink-purple tufts and candlestick blooms bending in a gust. In the distance stood a thick, ragged patch of alder scrub and elfin spruce.
"You know there's a grizzly out there," he said, almost in awe. After the attack, the National Park Service had determined that the grizzly was acting defensively and did not destroy it.
At the scene of the attack, Johan and Moses climbed down to the ledge where they had waited for the rescue helicopter. Before them stretched the great Grinnell Valley in all its immensity and silence. Zephyrs cut across the lake, its surface changing color in the wind and the shadows of the passing clouds. "It may seem weird to say this," he said, "but I am glad that this is beautiful. It makes me feel that the battle was worthy."
They continued along the trail, and at an overlook of the valley, he held the camcorder to his eye and captured the scenery. "OK, Jenna," he said into its microphone, "this is what we missed."
On the way back, he stopped again at the ledge. There was no bear. It was gone.
"It's done," he said.
*About this article
The accounts in this are drawn from extended interviews over a span of 18 months with Johan, Marilyn and Jenna Otter. Additional interviews were conducted with the following individuals:
At Kalispell Regional Medical Center: Lori Alsbury, Dr. Larry Iwersen, Jim Oliverson, Dr. Scott Rundle and Dr. Keri Thorn.
At Harborview Medical Center: Dr. Christopher Allan, Dr. Arash Jian-Amadi, Dr. Carlo Bellabarba, Susan Gregg-Hanson, Chad Hiner, Elizabeth Lowry, Dr. Nicholas Vedder, Dr. Lisa McIntyre and Enid Moore.
At Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla: Dr. Scott Barttelbort, Dr. Brent Eastman, Gary Fybel, Lisa Ohmstede, Dr. Arthur Perry, Dr. Robert Singer, Chris Van Gorder and Dr. Erik Westerlund.
Additional information came from Johan Otter's medical reports from Harborview Medical Center and Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
Thank you, Hot. Quite a reminder about the preciousness of life and the grace of the human spirit.
Incredible story. Thanks for sharing.
We'll burn that bridge when we get to it.
"I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum... and I'm all out of bubble gum."
- - Rowdy Roddy Piper
"It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. I am not a big man"
- - Fletch
Story>My attention span.
I'm sure its really good though.
"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."
Remind me never to complain again.
What a story.
Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?
". . . acquiring J. Blanton from Oakland for, apparently, Bailey/Cueto, Votto and a lesser prospect. I do it in a second . . . The Reds' equation this year is simple: Make Matt Belisle your #3 starter . . . trade for Blanton, win 85 or more, be in the mix all summer." - Paul Daugherty, Feb. 8, 2008
by the time I was done reading that I had to log back in to reply to this.
And the morale of the story is.... when two or more are hiking in the wilderness, make sure you're the faster runner.
"In my day you had musicians who experimented with drugs. Now it's druggies experimenting with music" - Alfred G Clark (circa 1972)
I was hoping this was a YouTube link. If I ever gain the patience to read that article, I'll start going to college.
That's awesome that he brought up Seinfeld as they were trying to get him off the mountain.
I looked up some pictures of him. He was tore the f up, I can't believe he lived.
"I know a lot about the law and various other lawyerings."
Hitters who avoid outs are the funnest.
"I know a lot about the law and various other lawyerings."
Hitters who avoid outs are the funnest.
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