A body rebuilt
After hours of searching, Lee Brooke finally spotted the elk he’d downed the day before. He trudged on, coming within 15 feet of the bull when he froze. The carcass had been moved, covered with brush abundant in the remote Wyoming backcountry. “Grizzly,” the veteran hunter thought. As he turned to run, Lee caught a glimpse of the enraged sow as it charged to protect its claimed meat and cubs.
In a split second, he felt the yank of his backpack as the grizzly spun him around, swiping his face and knocking him down. By the time she miraculously retreated, Lee’s face was unrecognizable, his leg deeply punctured, his shoulder broken, and his wrist crushed. As he stumbled away, his eyes covered in blood, all he could see was the ground - with his nose and mustache lying on it.
After his hunting buddies found him, one hiking 2 miles for reception and calling for help, one wrapping Lee’s face in a T-shirt, a long rescue effort ensued. Two teams hiked in by foot, the first one reaching him four hours later. Rescuers eventually transported Lee by stretcher to a clearing where a helicopter could land.
By the time he was helicoptered off the mountain to a small Wyoming town and flown by plane to Swedish Medical Center in Denver, one of few Level I trauma hospitals in the region, 14 hours had elapsed. But the team was ready, whisking Lee to surgery and placing him in a medically induced coma in preparation for the intense treatment that lay ahead.
“They gave him an amnesia-type drug so he wouldn’t relive the attack while he was immobilized,” says Lee’s wife, Martha, who flew to Denver from their Pennsylvania home the next day. From the minute she walked in, Swedish staff embraced her, comforting her and explaining everything as her husband’s life-saving treatment continued, Martha says. “I told them if anybody is going to pull through this and live, it’s going to be Lee, because his love for life is just too strong.”
Lee had five surgeries to reduce the high risk of deadly infection in the first week alone. “Dr. (Lily) Daniali and Dr. (Benson) Pulikkottil were very meticulous, opening each deep wound and cleaning and closing them back up,” Martha says, referring to the two microvascular reconstructive specialists who led Lee’s care.
Once stabilized, Lee’s rebuilding began. A multidisciplinary team of experts conducted a marathon surgery, rebuilding Lee’s mauled face and limbs. “I had 10 doctors in there working on me,” Lee says, including trauma, orthopedic trauma, otolaryngology, maxillofacial and microvascular specialists.
Drs Pulikkottil and Daniali removed a fibula and a flap of skin from his leg, then used the bone and skin to rebuild his face. Meanwhile, another team was conducting limb saving surgery on his arm, as another crew was patching his leg. Surgeons tag-teamed in and out of the 24-hour procedure, which left Lee with a working but temporary plastic nose. With a long road ahead, including more surgeries, Lee says there’s no doubt the couple will travel the 2,000 miles for the expert care at Swedish, where doctors will reconstruct a nose, possibly even using his own nose. His hunting partner put it in his pocket before he was airlifted. “The doctors anchored it to my arm to keep it alive. It’s just amazing.”
Throughout the ordeal (five months in Swedish), Lee and Martha say they were impressed by the entire staff’s motivation and teamwork, including their Swedish nurses and their therapists. “They were so confident and compassionate and communicated really well back and forth,” Lee says. “Everybody was phenomenal. They built me up and never let me down. They’re the best of the best.”