On July 14, 2003, Dan Bigley’s life changed forever. After salmon fishing all day on the Russian River, Dan and a friend were leaving for the night when he saw a grizzly. They turned around and headed the other direction to avoid it. But up ahead, they heard a rustling in the bushes. What they didn’t realize, was that changing direction placed them in between a bear and her cubs. The bear came at Dan at a dead run, hitting him before he could escape.
“I went to this place as I left my body where there was nothing but blue light around me. I felt like I was at a crossroads where it would have been very easy to let go. I had this vision of my mom and she was smiling this big goofy grin and waving. I decided right then that I was going to fight to live and that I wasn’t ever going to look back and second guess that decision,” Dan says.
Five of six arteries that carried blood to Dan’s scalp were either lacerated or totally severed, and he laid like that for two hours before the EMTs arrived, and it was four-and-a-half hours before he received definitive medical care at Providence. But it seemed if anyone could survive this kind of trauma, it would be Dan. While waiting for medical assistance, Dan, a wilderness first responder, helped keep himself alive by telling people how to help him. “As a result of all my guiding work that I had done, I let people know ‘hey, I need pressure here or you need to hold that tighter there,’ or whatever the case was.”
When lying on the ground, Dan made a contract with himself to fight to survive, but at that point, Dan didn’t know he would be blind. Dan sustained wounds all over his body. His brain had partially herniated into his nose, and he was leaking cerebrospinal fluid. “At the time, all the doctors could do in the initial surgery was take out dirt and debris, because I was still at such a high risk of dying. So they sewed me up and loaded me with antibiotics to see if I would live.” Not only did Dan survive, but he miraculously avoided getting any infections.
Two weeks after the incident, Dan came out of the coma. “I couldn’t see, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t sit up in bed, I didn’t have physical coordination, I couldn’t bring my hand up to my mouth or anything, I mean I wasn’t eating. I remember it was a big day when I was able to sit up in bed and when I first stood up. I think everybody around me was just so amazed and grateful that I was doing as well as I was, because by all the doctor’s accounts it was really beyond science or beyond medicine that I was alive,” he says.
Growing up, Dan lived for the outdoors and everything it had to offer—skiing, fishing, kayaking, hiking—he has done it all. Dan grew up in California and Ohio and spent his middle school years in Malaysia. He received his bachelor’s degree in natural history from Prescott College in Arizona. But Dan says it was his passion for adventure and the outdoors that led him to the “Last Frontier.”
But even with his sight intact and the world at his feet, Dan’s not so sure that his life was better before his accident. Dan says his priorities were all about recreation. “So when this happened, I realized that there was a new sense of what each day is worth, or a new sense of what each person in my life is worth. I really want to leave some footprints in the sand or really want to make a difference so it changed the way I pursued things like my dreams and goals.”
After eight extensive surgeries, Dan began to recover, and went to a school for blind people called Living Skills Center in California. Dan learned about assistive technologies for the blind including, computer gadgets, recording devices and special cell phone applications that could assist him in everyday life. His computer and watch speak, alerting him to new e-mails and the time. “I have a cell phone now that will actually read print to me from paper by simply taking a picture of it.” These technologies help Dan with day-to-day tasks in unique ways.
But more importantly, Dan had to learn how to do things that most people take for granted. “I had to learn how to keep an apartment clean, scan mail from my mailbox into a computer to read it to pay bills, learn Braille for things like organizing, labeling things and filing papers; how to match socks after doing laundry. I had to take cooking classes with an emphasis on how to do it blind, figuring out how to tell if food is still good or too old or just all different kinds of things that you don’t think about until you’re forced to cross that bridge.”
But what about things like walking down the hallways? On a typical walk to his office, Dan has his guide dog Anderson, a yellow lab, lead the way: a left, then another, then one more, then a right into his office—walking a mazelike course to his office, without missing a beat.
Naturally, Dan had fears about his future and adapting to his disability. “I was afraid that being a person with a disability I would get kind of pushed or shuffled into more medial types of work that would have less meaning for me and so I decided I needed to go back to school.”
At the time of the accident, Dan was a recreational therapist at Alaska Children’s Services working with emotionally disturbed kids. He loved his job, but he needed his sight to do it and it required lots of driving, home visits, and taking kids out into the mountains hiking or Frisbee-golfing. “The obvious path for me was to take what I was doing as an activities therapist to the next level which was to become a clinical therapist in social work.”
So, he decided to go to UAA and get a master’s degree in social work. But things this time around at college would be different. This time he’d have to navigate through a degree program without his sight.
With help of UAA’s Disability Support Services (DSS), he got the assistance at UAA. “DSS helped me find accessible textbooks, whether it was recorded or electronic versions, and make sure there was a table and chair in the room for me because I would come in with my guide dog, and the little desks wouldn’t cut it,” he smiles. DSS would also help proctor tests for Dan and provide tutors for him throughout the semester for classes like statistics. “The benefit was that I would have more time, if I needed, because obviously it takes me more time to do some types of things.”
Dan completed his master’s degree in three years and graduated with an astounding 4.0 GPA for the first time in his life. “I needed to accomplish this to prove to myself that I was not a lesser person—losing your sight creates a whole identity crisis. So, I went into this and gave it everything I got.” Dan said that he couldn’t stomach the thought of losing his 4.0 GPA after keeping it all the way from his first semester, “I would tell people ‘You can’t say that I have a 3.8 GPA. It just doesn’t have the same impact as 4.0. I’m like ‘Dude, I’ll lose my punch line!’”
Dan is currently a mental health therapist at Denali Family Services. He works with youth and families with all different backgrounds—whether it’s trauma, sexual abuse, substance abuse, behavioral disorders or other types of mental illnesses. Dan says it’s hard to pinpoint when he got interested in helping people, but he remembers first volunteering with his mom at a family abuse shelter in fifth grade and continued to volunteer throughout high school and college.
Dan says he feels so lucky to be alive and on this earth. “Some people ask me if I feel unlucky about what happened to me, which is a fair question. But most of the time I absolutely do not feel unlucky because I really could be dead. I’ve been given a chance to experience love and marriage and the joys of parenting, and given a chance to reach for goals like my career goals.” Dan is currently working on his book that will be ready in a couple of years.
But Dan couldn’t have gotten where he is today without his family. He is married to his wife Amber of four years, who he dated before the accident. They now have two children—Alden, 3, and Acacia, eight months.
With his dignity and character in question, Dan showed there are truly no limits. It’s all about how much effort you put into it. There are no limits to what job you have, what school you go to, what degree field you choose, or how well you do in school.
“Some people say that there is something special about me, and I don’t know if that is true or not. But what I do know is that I do have a real sense of connection to things—to this life, to this planet, to other people. A spiritual sort of thing, you know?”