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October 2006

Survival Story: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in Glacier National Park

On August 25, 2005, Johan Otter and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, hiked right into the worst nightmare of any Glacier National Park backpacker: a 300-pound mother grizzly protecting two cubs. Here, in his own words, the 45-year-old physical therapist from Escondido, CA, shares the incredible story of their life-and-death struggle.

I was taken to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where x-rays revealed I’d broken my neck in three places and needed to be kept still. An hour later, I was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and went right into 7 hours of surgery. Jenna stayed in Kalispell, where a physician who’s world-renowned for treating bear bites worked on her. There are exotic parasites that live in a bear’s mouth that could have killed us. Somehow, neither of us got an infection.

My list of injuries was long. About 60 percent of my head was “de-gloved”–the bear essentially took my scalp off. Its claw fractured my right eye socket and disrupted an eye muscle. One bite snapped my right wrist. I also broke my nose and two vertebrae; I had a compound fracture of my second cervical vertebra; I had bite wounds all over; I ruptured my left biceps; and I had lacerations on my thighs and shins.

Jenna broke her back in two places, but they were stable fractures–meaning they were in place and wouldn’t easily move. She had two big bites. One was from the corner of her mouth to the top of her head, and the other was on her right shoulder. She also lacerated her ankle nearly down to the Achilles tendon when she fell.

People have asked me how I feel about bears after the attack. Well, I don’t find them as cute as I used to. They can kill. But I realize they are an animal we need to have around. And grizzlies are a sign of true America. They are a symbol of wilderness at its purest–and of an ecosystem that is intact. You need to be really respectful of that, and the dangers that go with it.

Since the attack, I have been in and out of surgery. Doctors took a muscle from my side and put it on my scalp. I’ve had three surgeries on my eye. I can see fine when I look straight ahead, but I get double vision when I’m sitting at my keyboard. My neck gets stiff, but I’m getting physical therapy. I’m the director of physical, speech, and occupational therapy at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, so I know the importance of therapeutic follow-through.

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