The grizzly bear grabbed Lee Brooke from behind, pulled him off the ground and then rode on his back down a slope, crushing the left side of his body. It also bit off much of his face. As Brooke lay bleeding, unaware of the extent of his injuries, he could see his nose and mustache on the ground.
“Now, I knew what was wrong with my face,” he recalled.
Brooke, 61, shared his story of survival with Michael Konopasek of CNN affiliate KDVR in Denver.
“I can’t imagine being attacked by something like that and living,” Brooke said. “I should have bled to death right there.”
But Brooke is living — able to describe his remarkable journey after surviving the attack in Wyoming in October 2016. His wounds are extensive. His nose and lip are missing, and he is able to speak through a tracheal tube in his throat.
Even more remarkable, doctors managed to attach his torn-off nose to his right arm, keeping the tissue alive via his radial artery. They also closed the gaping hole in his face using skin grafts taken from his right leg. Doctors hope to reattach the nose during reconstruction surgery in the next year.
An avid hunter, Brooke had traveled from his Pennsylvania home to go elk hunting with close friends. He had shot an elk and returned the next day to retrieve it from the woods but was separated from his friends as he ventured out on his search. When he approached the downed elk, he realized a grizzly had claimed it for herself and her cubs.
“As soon as he turned around, that’s when he was attacked and had no time to react,” Jason Hunter, a wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said at the time.
Brooke was lifted from his feet, and the bear tore into him. He eventually was knocked unconscious, only to wake with the bear still on him.
“I felt her sniffing my cheek. I felt the whiskers,” he told Konopasek.
Brooke didn’t have his gun. He punched the bear. The bear bit his arm. His only remaining defense was a steak knife in his pocket.
Blood shrouded his vision. Fearing death, he pulled out the knife and stabbed the grizzly about four times. “I was this close to her nose,” Brooke said, motioning how there was little space between the two of them. “I don’t know if I’d been brave enough to stab her if I could see her.”
The bear ran off.
He screamed for help. A couple heard his pleas and called authorities. About an hour passed. Brooke prayed, “Lord, I could use some help right about now,” he recalled.
About that time, his hunting pal and brother-in-law George Neal found him. During the search, Neal first discovered Brooke’s nose and mustache: “I said, ‘Aw, no. This ain’t going to be good.’ “
He picked up the nose and mustache and stuffed them in Brooke’s pocket. “Hang on to this until we get you off the mountain,” he said. He ripped off his shirt and wrapped his brother-in-law as best he could to try to keep him warm. “He was kind of shaking,” Neal said.
Brooke was first taken to a hospital in Riverton, Wyoming, where he was stabilized. Seven hours after the attack, an emergency helicopter flew him 350 miles away for specialized care at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado.
Among those waiting for him were a husband and wife duo who had just finished years of intense plastic surgeon training. Dr. Benson Pulikkottil and Dr. Lily Daniali set up practice in the weeks before the attack. They would prove critical in Brooke’s recovery.
But at the time, Brooke was Daniali’s sixth case and Pulikkottil’s 15th.
“Lee Brooke is a special guy,” Daniali told CNN, saying his story is one of “resilience, a will to live and compassionate team-oriented medical care.”
The whole left side of his body was crushed, and he had bites and lacerations all over his body, according to Daniali. “The bear grabbed his face, bit it and ripped it off. It was a big bite.”
Almost every craniofacial bone was injured. His eye sockets were torn up. Part of his jaw was broken. The open wound on his face was “contaminated with dirt and twigs and bear,” Daniali said.
The doctors feared infection, washing and cleaning out the wounds extensively. “Most of these people who have bear attacks end up having bad infections and having a lot of complications because of it,” she said. “Lee was able to avoid that just because we were so aggressive with being careful of infection control.”
Added Pulikkottil, “ninety-nine percent of grizzly bear attacks of this magnitude are fatal.”
Brooke was placed in a medically induced coma at the Swedish Burn and Reconstructive Unit for the first month he was there. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen when he woke up — if he was going to be angry,” Pulikkottil recalled. “Then, he wakes up and he’s super intelligent and thankful. He ends up being a really good patient — and our friend.”
Pulikkottil added, “Everyone was calling him ‘The Revenant’ because the movie had recently come out.”
Brooke underwent 12 different surgeries over the first 2½ months. Bones in his face were reconstructed using leg bone. Metal plates also helped rebuild his facial features.
The surgeries were only a portion of his treatment. He suffered from PTSD and underwent extensive therapy to help cope with the trauma. He also had to physically rehab his body, slowly starting to exercise and learning little tasks like how to eat again.
“The bear attack isn’t the real story here,” Brooke said. “The story is the remarkable care, respect, dignity and healing I received from the surgeons and every level of staff at Swedish.”
His gratefulness for being alive was on display this month at a fundraiser for him in his hometown of Westfield, Pennsylvania. Brooke was animated and in good spirits as he talked about the day that changed his life — of wrestling the giant grizzly and of wanting to survive to see his wife Martha again.
A couple hundred people stopped in over the course of the afternoon, to donate for his continued medical expenses and to listen to his awe-inspiring story. He was the only Maytag repairman in the area of 40,000 people, and many knew him long before the attack. Brooke is unable to work now and isn’t sure what’s next.
He spent last Thanksgiving in the hospital with the husband-and-wife doctor team cooking up a feast and celebrating in his room. As beautiful as that moment was, he’s glad to be home this Thanksgiving.
He will return to Swedish Medical Center in late December for more procedures. He will undergo about a half-dozen more over the next year to rebuild his upper lip and nose, using cartilage from his ribs and ears, as well as his nose tissue they attached to his forearm. Doctors will use skin from his forehead as the outer layer for his new nose.
Brooke maintains a sense of humor, able to crack jokes about having metal screws placed in his head. “Now, when they say I have a screw loose, that might be true,” he told KDVR.
For now, Brooke is just happy to be alive. “This story is one we all need to hear,” he told one town member at his fundraiser.