Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meet Dan Bigley

Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that speaks to me in such a  profound way.  It inspires me and challenges me and humbles me in ways that can’t help but make me a better human being going through this journey called life.  Once I start reading I am totally captivated and every time I have to put the book down I do so with an ache in my heart, waiting to reunite at the soonest possible moment. Such was my experience reading Beyond the Bear: How I Learned to Live and Love Again after Being Blinded by a Bear. 

Dan Bigley was a 25 year old adventurer.  In 2003, he was living his dream in Anchorage, Alaska…..skiing, fishing, hiking, attending music shows and working with troubled teenagers.  One evening after a successful day fishing with his buddy at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers, they were almost back to the car when he was attacked by a frantic grizzly sow (with two cubs).  He was smacked and chewed on and then dragged about 25 feet.  His injuries were beyond horrific.  His eyes popped out of his head and his entire facial infrastructure rearranged; sinuses in pieces and vital bone missing from his skull.  While still laying on the ground after the attack and drifting in and out of consciousness, he made a vow to live.  Not just exist but REALLY live.  His choice would challenge him in the months and many surgeries that lay ahead.

In part, this book was so compelling to me because I remember reading his story in the Anchorage Daily News as it happened.  I remember cheering when he was released from the hospital after many weeks and I remember crying after reading a letter he wrote expressing his humble thanks to the hospital and staff that cared for him.  And wondering what became of him after.

What happened is he took some time to heal at his parents home in California.  In addition to his physical wounds he had some deep psychological wounds as well.  Several years of counseling helped quiet the nightmares and get the “bear out of his head.” After a year or so he attended a school for the blind to learn some critical skills for living without sight and how to use a cane.  He also lost his sense of smell so they taught him tricks for differentiating between toothpaste and ICY HOT, or between shampoo and mouthwash.  After completion of the school, he was empowered enough to return to Anchorage and resume his life. 

He couldn’t have picked a more challenging city to return to with it’s icy, snow-filled streets and cold temperatures.  One day he was caning his way home and would have run into a moose were it not for a bystander’s warnings.  He had to sell his cabin in the woods and lost many of his adventuresome friends.  But one remained by his side.

He had briefly started dating a woman before the mauling.  They had kept in touch and resumed their relationship once he was back in Alaska.  They eventually married and now have two children.  He went back to school for his masters in social work.  Before he could start the masters program, he needed to take a Statistics class which couldn’t be more visual.  He practiced his route getting to and from class on the first day he arrived at the appointed classroom only to find out they had moved it making him 20 minutes late and a lot frazzled.  That was just the start, almost the entire class was taught on a white board with other visual aids.  He ended up lagging way behind so he hired 3 different tutors to help him out and ended up with A.  After his masters he started work as a clinician for Denali Family Services, a nonprofit counseling center in Anchorage for disturbed children and their families.  A year later he was promoted to director of therapeutic foster care for DFS, the largest therapeutic foster-care provider in the state.

In 2008, the Governor's Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation for People With Disabilities presented him with its Alaskan of the Year Award. Prescott College gave him a Distinguished Alumni Award that same year, and in 2010, a Desert Star Award, which recognizes alumni carrying forward the Prescott mission. Most recently, he received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Alaska.

At some point in time he threw away the cane and got a dog.  His now constant companion, Anderson, guides him through life working, playing with his kids, chasing salmon, playing music, practicing yoga or going to live music shows.

You just can’t read this book without being uplifted and inspired and challenged to do better in your own life.  I almost cried when it was over.  I highly recommend it and note that all of his reviewers on Amazon gave him FIVE stars.