ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Coming face to face with a grizzly bear and living to tell the story — it’s something movies are made of, but this is no movie.
Doctors at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood are being credited with saving a man whose face was torn off by a grizzly bear.
Lee Brooke was hunting in Wyoming when he encountered a grizzly. After months of treatment in Colorado, he is now back home in Pennsylvania.
The attack happened in early October 2016, some 1,900 miles west of Lee’s Pennsylvania home in the mountains near Dubois, Wyoming.
Brooke, his brother-in-law George Neal and two friends set out to hunt elk. It was a trip that forever changed Brooke’s life.
Brooke can no longer control tears. A good portion of his face is gone. He depends on a tracheal tube to tell his story.
“I don’t know how to say thank you,” Brooke told a crowd of neighbors and loved ones as he recalled the attack.
Neighbors have been rallying to help Brooke and his wife pay mounting medical bills.
In a county of just more than 40,000, Brooke was the lone Maytag repairman. He knows just about everyone in his town of Westfield, Pennsylvania.
At an event in early November, friends and longtime neighbors listened as Lee told his story.
“I should’ve bled to death right there,” Brooke told his community. “I should’ve least drowned on my blood.”
His story started with success — a kill. Brooke approached an elk he shot a day earlier, but he saw something that told him he was in extreme danger.
Debris covered the game — a clear sign that a bear had claimed the elk for herself and her cubs.
“I can still feel the adrenaline rush from seeing the elk,” Brooke said.
Brooke said he immediately turned to leave, but he was quickly off his feet and into the paws of a giant grizzly — grabbing him from behind.
Brooke said the attack happened very quickly. His nose and upper lip were torn from his face. At some point, Brooke was knocked unconscious.
“I felt her sniffing my cheek,” Brooke said, recalling the moment he regained consciousness. “I felt the whiskers.”
Brooke said he had no choice but to fight. Not sure he would survive — the thought of death doesn’t cross his mind.
He was determined to see his wife Martha again. Brooke said blood in his eyes made the fight difficult.
He hit the bear. She bit into his arm. His gun was not with him. A steak knife in his pocket was his only hope.
“I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to stab her if I could see her,” Brooke said. “I had to lean in to stab her in the head. So I was this close to her nose.”
After several strikes, the bear left Brooke. He was separated from his hunting party, but now, more than ever, determined to live.
Brooke said he felt no pain. That — paired with his survival — he calls a miracle.
“I think that was a divine intervention,” Brooke said.
Searching for help
After about an hour in the woods, Brooke said his prayer was answered. Not knowing it at the time, his yells for help were heard by couple in the area.
They called for help, but that help didn’t find Brooke before brother-in-law Neal arrived.
“I could hear Lee down over the bank,” Neal said.
Neal first found Brooke’s nose and mustache. He put the nose and upper lip in Brooke’s pocket. Anxious to find help, they started a slow journey down the mountain to reach cellphone service.
“I took my T-shirt off,” Neal said. “I tried to keep him warm. He was kind of shaking.”
Brooke was in a helicopter heading to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood seven hours after the attack.
He spent five months in Colorado and turned 60 in the hospital. For a month, Brooke was in a medically induced coma at the Swedish Burn and Reconstructive Unit.
Hours of surgery kept him alive and preserved part of his nose.
Blood from Brooke’s arm now feeds his nose. Brooke said Colorado doctors could use what’s left of his nose to one day reconstruct a new one on his face.
“Then I’ll be a new Lee,” he said.
Members of Brooke’s medical team are regarded as among the best in the country. Drs. Benson Pulikkottil and Lily Daniali — husband and wife — are essential members of Brooke’s team.
“Between anesthesia, orthopedic, trauma — everyone was working on him,” Pulikkottil said.
Brooke spent three months going through surgeries. One lasted about 24 hours. He then spent two months in rehab exercising, learning how to eat again and overcoming physiological trauma.
“We didn’t just fix his body,” Daniali said. “We really wanted to make sure that he recovered mentally.”
Much of Brooke’s current face was produced through delicate procedures using skin grafts from his right leg.
His nose is kept alive on his arm thanks to a procedure using leaches to infuse blood flow.
“The source we used was his radial artery in his arm,” Pulikkottil said.
Doctors plan to rebuild Brooke’s nose and upper lip. His nostril will be key in that reconstructive surgery.
“We’ll take cartilage from different parts of his body including his rib and his ears,” Pulikkottil said.
Bones in Brooke’s face were partially constructed with leg bone. Brooke said he has metal plates and screws in his head.
Brooke said he still loves hunting and isn’t afraid it. At 61, he’s currently unable to work. He’s not sure what’s next.
He said he will forever be grateful for modern medicine the amazing work of some of the most talented doctors and nurses he could’ve ever hoped for.
Swedish said Brooke will be back in Colorado just after Christmas to start a series of reconstructive surgeries that could take about a year to complete.