After 25 surgeries, Nome bear-mauling survivor is back at work - and speaking

Diana Haecker

NOME -- After 2½ years of going through more than 25 surgeries, healing and rebuilding his life, Wes Perkins, 57, has reached his ultimate goal: He's got his job back.

"That was one of my goals when I got hurt, that one day I would have this job back," Perkins said in an interview with the Nome Nugget last week.

On Aug. 1, Perkins reclaimed his old office as the area supervisor at the TelAlaska building in Nome.

"I don't just like it. I love it," he said. "I really, really wanted to have that job."

Perkins can speak again, a miracle in itself considering that he has only a fraction of his tongue left. While his speech is still labored, his words are intelligible, straightforward and fraught with the same sense of humor as they were prior to his accident.

Speaking -- and many other things -- is something he couldn't do since May 2011, when a grizzly bear nearly ripped off his head in an attack near Skookum Pass. Perkins' life changed in an instant. After a dramatic rescue that involved his hunting partners, Dan and Edward Stang, and his brother organizing the rescue flight out of the wilderness, Perkins narrowly escaped death and set out on a long journey to recover.

Perkins always gave to help others, either as a Nome volunteer firefighter since 1978 or as an ambulance volunteer. He said it was hard to be on the receiving end of the help that was extended to him when he needed it. But Perkins drew strength from the outpouring of support from Nomeites and strangers alike.

"I have boxes and boxes of cards and letters," Perkins said.

He said he had a lot of ups and downs along the way.

"I have a strong family to support me, the community of Nome and even people from all over Alaska send me cards and letters," he said.

Asked how he deals with the emotional scars, Perkins said, "It just happened. I have to deal with it. I can sit here and feel sorry for myself, but what does that do? You gotta move on."

Perkins' attitude was never that of a victim of circumstance, and that didn't change with the attack.

He lauded his team of surgeons at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for putting him back together, and the rest he did himself, with the unwavering support of family, friends and Nomeites.

He relearned how to speak with a speech therapist as the feeding tubes came out of his throat and stomach earlier this year. With major surgeries over now, he concentrates on many more small steps he needs to heal completely.

The road to recovery has been long, painful and expensive -- Perkins estimates $1 million in medical bills. But the former NVFD fire chief declares himself a "happy camper" to have defeated the odds.

Last summer, he couldn't speak or eat. But this spring, he has been out in the country, hunting for caribou. He can ride a snowmachine, drive a four-wheeler and a car again. Running is not quite possible but he is walking a lot.

After the skin transplants, he needed to stay in temperate climates to allow the skin to heal. The bite of the cold Nome spring air and the risk of frostbite would've undone what surgeons so carefully achieved in the last operation.

While recuperating on Maui from his last skin surgery, he walked five to 10 miles a day on legs that bear the marks of many operations. They have been mined for parts to reconstruct his face. In addition to titanium plates as part of reconstructive surgery, his jaw has been redone with the fibula from his left leg.

"Doctors say you don't really need a fibula," he said. "Isn't that interesting?"

He joked that his body supplied the spare parts that were used to make his face whole again: fibula for the jaw, skin and tissue from both thighs for the jaw and cheek.

With a white towel handy, he often wipes his weeping left eye. He can see only shadow and light in that eye; that's why he is extra careful to use safety glasses when on the job outside.

"I only have one good eye left," he said. "Gotta be careful."

A team of doctors at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle worked the wonders of modern medicine on him but Perkins needed to come up with the will to go on and with solutions to challenges.

Although he couldn't eat solid food, he occupied his time with cooking, baking, making sausage and preparing many dishes of wild food for his family, firefighter and ambulance volunteers, and the crew working at the Nome Joint Utility System powerhouse.

For him, eating is a slow process. At first he tried to spoon liquids into his mouth but that didn't work. How do you suck on a straw and swallow if most of the tongue is missing? He observed hockey players with squirt bottles and applied the solution.

"I eat everything now -- salmon, halibut, moose, mashed potatoes, pie, everything," he said. The cooked meal just has to go through the blender and into the squirt bottle.

Perkins said he doesn't have nightmares about the actual bear attack. Nor does he hold a grudge against the bruin. But the nightmares he had while on withdrawal from the pain medication methadone were horrible.

"The hardest thing in the whole deal was to wean myself from the painkillers, from methadone," he said.

From May through September 2011, he was on methadone to manage the pain.

"I even had my own pain doctor. I called her my pain lady," Perkins joked.

But it wasn't the least bit funny to get off the drug.

"I went through the whole withdrawal process like a drug addict: I was hotter than hell. Then a few minutes later I was cold and shivered," he said. "You can't imagine the pain. I was nauseous and sick to the stomach."

It took seven months to get over it. Perkins prides himself that he only takes his vitamins now, not even popping an aspirin for pain.

For now, Perkins is done with surgeries.

"As long as I can talk the way I talk now, I'm happy," he said.

With Nome having been without a direct Nome-based TelAlaska supervisor for a while, Dave Goggins, vice president of operations for TelAlaska, managed to restore that slot. Once the position was advertised, Perkins immediately applied. Goggins said that Perkins' deep roots in Nome were important when he was originally hired.

"It was compelling factor in considering his rehire," Goggins said. "His knowledge of the company, Nome area operations and his attitude were certainly pluses for us and our customers."

"I think his physical recovery is nothing short of a miracle," Goggins said. He visited Perkins in the hospital in July 2011. "At that time, I didn't think he would be able to come back to work."

"His attitude since the mauling is equally inspiring. There is no denying his strength and ability to serve us all well," he said. "TelAlaska, the Nome community and the surrounding villages will all benefit with Wes back and in Nome. We couldn't be happier."

The happiness goes both ways. Sitting in his office at TelAlaska last week, Perkins was asked whether he shook his fists at the universe for dealing him these cards. His answer was a decisive "no."

"I have a life to live," he said. "No time to feel sorry for myself. I feel I'm the happiest man in the world."

The Nome Nugget