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Life's good for Alaskan who lost face in grizzly bear attack

Craig Medred

NOME -- Almost a year and a half after the bear attack, after 26 surgeries and more than a $1 million in medical expenses, Wes Perkins is whole in body and still badly disfigured. There is no gentle way to describe his condition. Doctors had to use part of his fibula to create a jaw to replace what the bear ripped off of his face. He still has a tube in his throat. His left eye, which sees only light and dark, weeps constantly. And probably worst of all, for a man who always loved to talk, he is now hard to understand because he speaks with only half a tongue.

Despite all this, Perkins keeps moving forward with that indomitable spirit that defines the best of those living in rural Alaska. He is thankful to be alive, thankful for a strong and supportive family, thankful for his many friends here on the edge of the Bering Sea, and thankful that even though he heads to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center later this month for yet another surgery, he continues to make steady progress toward an even greater recovery.

"I feel great," he wrote in sprawling handwriting on a lined writing pad. "Always was in good shape and active. I have a good life, lots of people have it far worse than I."

Half a tongue, but chatty

His speech impediment has turned Perkins into a world-class scribbler. At his Nome home earlier this month, recognizing that a reporter was having trouble understanding all of his words, he got out his notepad and conducted an interview in long hand. A Nome friend describes how when Perkins got up in front of people to talk at a public meeting he gave up, turned to chalkboard and went wild writing out his comments.

His enthusiasm for discussion has certainly not waned. During the interview, his pen flew across the notepad without pause for difficult questions or difficult answers. He was forthright in the extreme about what he has been through.

"Titanium plate on both cheeks and a titanium rib around the jaw bone," he wrote. "Methadone bad. Tough to get off."

Perkins was on methadone for a long time after the bear attack to try to hold back the pain morphine couldn't stop. Withdrawal from the methadone, he said, might have been the worst part of his long and continuing ordeal. Withdrawal left him either freezing or sweating. He was nauseous all the time. Imagine having the worst case of the flu you’ve ever known, and you'll get the idea. Then think about it dragging on for months.

"The methadone gave me violent dreams," he added. "Ripped out IV and feed tube by mistake a few times (in those dreams). Once being chased by people down an alley. Scary."

Sudden nightmare

All of this due to one encounter with one bear on a hunting trip that went from a pleasant outing to a nightmare in the blink of an eye. Anyone who thinks the bears are our friends, think again. The bears, as Larry Aumiller, one-time manager of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and world-famous bear viewing area, once observed, "the bears don't give a rip."

The bears are not bad. Neither are they good. They are wild animals, and they act in the way of wild animals. Just hope you are never in a situation where their instinct to fight or flee says "fight." Perkins was there the day that happened. It is pure luck or a miracle, if you believe in such things, he is alive today. A trained paramedic, he remembers reaching into his throat to pull out pieces of his face to keep his airway open so he wouldn't suffocate after the attack.

"I had to dig stuff out of (my) airway to breathe," he wrote. "If I was unconscious, I would have died. Also, (as) long as I lay still just right I was able to keep my airway open. I could not move my face sideways or my airway would close. I know if I lost consciousness, I would probably die. So I stayed alert all the way (to Nome), and I could squeeze the hands of my two partners when they asked me questions."

His partners were Dan Stang, a Nome dentist, and his son, Edward, a student in dentistry school. They shot the 8-foot-tall, 13-year-old grizzly boar off of Perkins. That was the first step to saving his life. More followed as Nome organized a rescue that was both epic and lucky. Even as the Stangs began life-saving first aid, they were radioing for help from Nome, a community far from anywhere at the tip of the Seward Peninsula jutting into the sea closer to Russia than Anchorage, the urban hub of the 49th state.

Perkins' brother Nate made the radio call. He didn't call Alaska State Troopers and wait for others to act. He pretty much single-handedly organized a rescue to lift his brother from the wilderness of the Kigluaik Mountains, about 30 miles east of this small community. "Ace chopper pilot Ben Rowe saved his life," Nate said at the time, but Rowe was only one of the many who combined to save then 54-year-old Wes's life. Rowe was in the air only minutes after taking a phone call from Nate. As he flew, others were rolling into action, too.

Thankful beyond belief

Wes's survival hinged on the Stangs, then Rowe, then the staff at the Norton Sound Health Corp., who stabilized Wes. Then there was the crew of the medevac flight that winged him almost 2,000 miles south to Seattle, where the staff at Harborview began the process of putting him back together. And finally, staff at both the Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage helped with continuing treatment.

Wes remembers them all. He is thankful beyond belief, especially to the Stangs.

"I laid with head in Dr.'s lap sideways and all curled up in a small R44 helicopter," he jotted in the notes he conveniently took for a reporter. Wes didn't know then if he was going to live or die. He wouldn't be sure of the answer to that question for quite a while. He spent five days in a medically induced coma in Seattle hospital bed. He remembers seeing lights during that time, wanting someone to turn down the heat in the room, and hearing the NBA playoffs on the TV on the wall.

"It was 90 degrees in the room they had me in," he wrote. "Just wondered, ‘Where am I?’ Many times."

The long road back, he wrote, finally started "when I woke up in Harborview, and I stood up next to the bed." He still couldn't see.

"Surgery on my face left my one good eye swollen shut," he wrote. "2-3 days later can hear all the familiar voices, but could not see anything. So then, in a few days, a squint of life. I could see images, then people."

Not long after, a physical therapist "came in with a walker," he wrote. "Then a cane. I was back to normal, a small, slow walk in about five days. I used a cane, as they said I had to. (But) outside of Harborview, on a fence, I would hang the cane, everyday walk farther from it. She said I can't leave hospital until I can climb stairs. So I was right behind her all the way. She said, ‘You don't need me anymore. You're fine.’ That was about the end of September. Sept. 27, 2011.”

Blender guru

More than four months after the bear attack, Wes was finally well enough to get around on his own, but his treatment was far from over. He spent the following year back and forth between Seattle, Anchorage and Nome as doctors tried to rebuild his face. There is talk now of a partial face transplant somewhere in the future to try to make him look and function better. Wes still can't eat in the normal sense of the word. He is on a liquid diet. He has taken to trying to come up with the ultimate in smoothies.

"They told me, a therapist at Providence, ‘Never be able to eat or drink by mouth,’ " Wes wrote, underlining the word "Never" three times. He wasn't about to take that for a final answer. "I started spooning liquid in back of my throat as it would get so dry. I found out on my own about the sports bottle so with the trach (trachea) tube out I could suck like a straw. So I went to the second therapist at Alaska Regional and had a second test. My epiglottis (was) not working, but I can swallow and it's getting to my stomach."

Since that discovery, Wes has had his blender going full tilt. "I grind up soup, some meat, veggies, lots of frozen fruit, protein powder, bananas, banana bread," he wrote. "I make blend, Ensure milk, blueberries. Have to get calories, as I lost 30 lbs." The lbs., too, is underlined three times. Wes might find it easier to write than talk now, but he still remembers how to emphasize key points.

He said in Nome he wanted to set the record straight on something.  After he was attacked last May, it was reported that he'd been taking pictures of the bear before it charged. Wes wrote that was not the case. It was a conclusion that emerged from the fog of battle because the Stangs had found his camera on the ground next to where the bear knocked him off his snowmachine before mauling him.

"Some think I was taking pictures," he wrote. "I did not know the bear was 69 feet away in a snow cave. I would not get 69 feet from a bear in the zoo.

"I had a camera in my pocket, snowgo jacket. So when I stopped, I thought the bear was ahead of me. We saw it had been running. So I stopped to take camera out of pocket and put it in my dash bag as I could shoot the gun."

The bear attacked as he was doing that.

"I turned and saw the bear, full charge," he wrote. "I only had time to say, 'Oh shit!' But I got (my) gun 1/2way off my back . . .  When I turned around, the bear was that close. I had no time to do anything. Nine steps from 69 feet, according to Fish and Game. Big bear."

Perkins, who spent his life in Alaska, has a fair bit of experience around grizzlies, but added, "I never had one hide like this one!" What followed after it burst from a snow cave has been an experience he couldn't imagine in his worst nightmares.

Trouble with titanium

"Worse thing was three months in hospital bed, as I am so active," he wrote. "Last winter a little tough being inside (in Nome). Could not get out much. The cold bothers my face because of the (titanium) plates. #1 thing I learned is healing comes, but it is slow," again with that double underline on slow.

"I have done lots of things inside. I don't sit in front of the TV. I cooked for people in town, made sausage, breads, etc....I push myself hard. I could sit home & do nothing and feel sorry, but I have always helped people, not needed help. Been on the fire dept. 34 years. Joined in Feb. of 1978. So I always helped others, never thought I would be on the receiving end, but very grateful for all the help and support for sure.

"All of Alaska. Lots of people from everywhere. All over the states and Canada. The other day when we found out we had surgery in Seattle, Terrie (his wife) asked if anyone had an AK Airlines companion fare coupon. We had one in 10 minutes for $250 and 2 people wanting to give us one. So lots of support for sure. I see people, they say welcome home. But I've been home almost a year, just not out that much."

Slowly, that is changing as his health continues to improve and he learns to accept that his appearance is likely to attract attention. He does not look bad with his sunglasses on, but the twisted look of his lower face, with his mouth offset to one side, is bound to draw second glances. Wes is not letting this hold him back.

"Got my EMT II recertification in May back," he wrote. "Took the class & passed all my skills. As soon as the surgery is over, I would love to go back to work. I miss it. I want to go back to doing something. Just know that I have a few more surgeries and will be gone, so I will miss a lot of work." So that will have to wait.

Fishing, hiking now

He is, however, already back to enjoying what both Alaska and Seattle offer in the non-work hours. "I caught a few silvers (silver salmon)," he wrote. "Been to Council (a community on the Nome road system where the family keeps a summer cabin), and camp. Walking. Do lots of walking in Seattle when we are there. Pikes (Place) Market. Go to the mall in a cab and then walk around there. My older sister lives in Yelm outside Seattle. So we walk around the lake where they live. I started driving in April."

Life is almost back to normal. Almost.

The titanium plates in his face will likely always give him trouble in the cold. He'd probably be better off spending the rest of his life somewhere warmer than this isolated, far-north community. But Perkins’ family roots go deep here.

"Mom -- born here, raised here," Wes wrote. "Her parents mined at Solomon, Iron Creek. Dad, teacher from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, moved to Council to teach school in 1952 or ‘53. My uncle Bob, still here, alive, 90 years old. My dad was once mayor."

Wes grew up in an old Alaska where people did battle against nature and adversity every day. Nobody whined about the Internet being out or losing power because there was no Internet and in a lot of places there was no power. A tough life toughened them.

"I have never been really depressed that I can remember," Wes wrote. "I've had some bad days and tough times the past year, but we get through it. At Harborview, Terrie was my nurse. Now she's (a) qualified ass-chewer for insurance companies."

Working on his speech

Terrie, in the kitchen nearby packaging freshly ground caribou meat as this interview takes place, only bobs her head in agreement. This hasn't just been a long road just for Wes. It's been a long road for her and the kids, too. It is getting better. Terrie can now understand Wes when he talks; it is an acquired skill. Wes still hopes to improve his speech.

"I have 'Speak It' (software) on my phone and Ipad," he said, "but if I do not try to talk, I will never get better." He has a speech therapist in Anchorage, Anne Ver Hoef, the snowshoer of Iditarod Trail Invitational fame. When Perkins is in town for therapy, they share tales of the Iditarod, which Wes snowmachined more than a decade ago. The memories are good.

"Like I said, I have to move on and keep doing what I was doing," he wrote. "My (bad) eye, if I can keep and it does OK, maybe in 10 years they can fix it. They don't do tongue transplants yet," but he's working at the speech and it’s improving.

"I can taste some," he wrote, "and smell a little. Smell will be better after surgery, I hope. Life is good."

And if you're Wes Perkins, if you can say that after what he's been through, it is saying something.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com