Bearing it: Man recovers from 2 brushes with bruins

Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2005

It takes a certain amount of luck to survive being attacked by one of Alaska's famed brown bears, but to survive two such attacks takes a lot of luck and more.

Soldotna resident Scott MacInnes can attest to that.

Aside from a light scar running down the left side of the 53-year-old geophysicist's chin, MacInnes shows no outward signs of the two brown bear attacks from which he has fully recovered in his lifetime.

The first time MacInnes was attacked, nearly 40 years ago, he had been hiking near Devil's Pass in the Resurrection River Valley with a junior high school friend when both boys were attacked.

MacInnes' injuries were the more severe, and because bites to both legs made it nearly impossible for him to walk, his friend ran more than 5 miles back to the highway and hitched a ride into Cooper Landing —the closest place with a telephone back then. An Air Force rescue helicopter was summoned and eventually plucked MacInnes from the hillside and whisked him to an Anchorage hospital for treatment.

In April of this year, MacInnes once again became the victim of a brown bear attack; this time near Mackey Lakes in Soldotna.

Retelling his story Friday, MacInnes said he and his 10-year-old golden retriever, Willow, went out for a run at about 7 a.m.

A light snow was falling and darkness was just beginning to make way for twilight.

Willow, who was off leash, was running alongside MacInnes as the two headed down Dirks Road off Denise Lake Road.

"Although we didn't know it at the time, we had just run past a moose kill and Willow sensed something in the bushes," MacInnes said.

They both stopped, and MacInnes said he became nervous.

A biologist had recently told him bear tracks were found on Dirks Road a few weeks earlier, and the thought now came forward in his mind.

They didn't see anything, and resumed running, rounding a right-angle corner.

Willow went into the bushes about 40 feet in front of MacInnes and suddenly, without warning, a brown bear sow came out of the bushes about 30 feet in front of MacInnes.

"I was already running and turned towards the trees.

"In a split second, the bear and I met at the tree," he said.

"In retrospect, I should have stopped running. I should not have turned towards the trees. But we're talking split seconds," MacInnes said.

MacInnes was bit on the jaw, the bear throwing him to the ground with the power of the bite, then bit on his throat and his stomach.

"When I felt it bite my stomach, I thought, 'I've got to protect my vital organs,'" he said.

MacInnes curled up into a ball and in doing so, kicked the bear with his left leg. The bear bit his leg.

He concentrated on remaining motionless, and perhaps because Willow started distracting the bear's attention, the bear stopped the attack and left the immediate vicinity.

MacInnes stayed quiet for one or two minutes and then saw the dog's paws coming his way.

"At first I thought she would bring the bear back to me. Then I got up and thought I needed to get out of there," he said.

MacInnes said any pain from his wounds was not overwhelming. Perhaps adrenaline was taking over.

His focus now was on the need to keep walking, the need to get out of there.

He and Willow walked more than a mile before finding a neighbor at home, who called 911 and got a Central Emergency Services ambulance to take him to Central Peninsula General Hospital.

Dr. Chris Mickelson was the emergency department physician on duty when MacInnes was brought in, and he immediately realized the need for a surgeon. Dr. Regina Chennault was summoned.

Because several of MacInnes' teeth were loosened or knocked out during the first bite, dentist Dr. Dan Pitts was called to stabilize the teeth to prevent them from damaging the airway.

Because of the bite to the throat, Chennault said the doctors were concerned about a possible tear to the trachea, and they made a small incision in the front of his neck to insert a tube so he could breathe.

MacInnes said he doesn't recall much about the procedures, since he was under anesthesia, but said he did not bleed much from all the bite wounds, have trouble breathing, feel dizzy or as if he was going to faint from blood loss.

After the tracheotomy, Chennault performed exploratory surgery on MacInnes' neck to be sure there was no damage to the trachea or nerves, and then did exploratory surgery to his abdomen to inspect his organs.

"He was in good shape," she said.

Dr. James Zirul, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, repaired MacInnes' face, which was actually torn away and flapping loose following the initial bite. The upper part of his lower jaw was broken off and bone fragments were in the skin.

"What he did was pretty remarkable," MacInnes said of Zirul's facial repairs, which have barely left a scar.

The hospital is in a lengthy process of becoming the only Level 3 trauma hospital in Alaska. David Gilbreath, chief executive officer of CPGH, credits this perpetration, among other factors, in helping save MacInnes' life.

"Scott MacInnes was really lucky the bite to his throat did not cause important arteries to tear open; he was lucky he was able to walk back over a mile to where 911 could be called; he was lucky we had the staff as we are preparing for our Level 3 designation," Gilbreath said.

Currently Alaska Native Medical Center, Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional in Anchorage are Level 2 and hospitals in Bethel and Nome are Level 4. The nearest Level 1 trauma center is Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The requirements for being a Level 3 hospital include mandatory training of staff members, equipment that is required of each hospital and specific health care policies that must be in place at each facility.

Level 3 trauma centers also are required to have a general surgeon and anesthesiologist available within 30 minutes, have an operating room and recovery staff on site, as well as having support staff nurses, technicians and physicians at the ready.

"I'm really thankful for all these doctors," MacInnes said.

"What they did was remarkable."

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