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A Pennsylvania woman attacked by a North American black bear shares her perspective of the events and her road to recovery with two emergency medicine physicians who helped care for her.

On December 18th 2018, Melinda Lebarron left her rural Pennsylvania home to let out her long-haired Chihuahua when she was mauled and dragged by a female North American black bear. Melinda sustained life-threatening injuries including a near-complete scalp avulsion, multiple facial fractures and lacerations, severe puncture wounds to her skull, torso, and extremities as well as fractures of her right clavicle, acetabulum, pelvis, and several ribs. She underwent eight surgeries, including a skin graft to her scalp and her hospital stay spanned fifty-five days. Despite her harrowing experience and challenging road to recovery, Melinda has been open to sharing her experiences with others. The following is a transcribed interview with the physicians (who were residents at the time) who took care of her. Names and details used with permission by the patient. Some elements of the interview were edited for length and clarity. Ironically, BEAR is the name of her dog and capitalized for clarity.

Doug Sallade (DS): Do you remember what you were doing that night, before you let BEAR out, before all this happened?


Melinda Lebarron (ML): We had just got done eating supper and all I wanted to do was get outside before my 8 o’clock TV show started… walk her (BEAR), have my cigarette, let her go to the bathroom then go back in the house and that was it. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked. Looking to my right, wondering why she (BEAR) was barking and carrying on like she was and I thought “Is it a deer? No, she wouldn’t be doing that to a deer.” All of a sudden, I heard this growling and I take a step, which I shouldn’t have, but I stepped down onto the sidewalk and there she was. There was no running, there was no turning back, there was no nothing. I had no chance of even getting away, the bear was there that quick. I was done. I kept hollering for help. “Stop!” She wouldn’t stop.

Marc Cassone (MC): And once she took you to the ground, what happened after that?

ML: She had a hold of my hair and she started dragging me. She just started taking me somewhere. First thing that came to my mind was which way is she taking me? In my mind, I was trying to grasp where she was taking me so if I was good enough after she was done doing whatever she was planning on doing to me, I was able to know which way I had to go to get back home if I survived it. I just remember being drug and I kept hearing crunching in my head, trying to figure out if I was going to have a skull left or not because it just sounded like she was in my bone. I just kept hearing it. She just kept roughing me up and all of a sudden, I was drug across the road and down over the embankment and into the brush, the trees, the briars. She left me to lay there and then she sat on top of my head. I laid still and I waited to see what she was going to do. She just grunted at me and she walked away.

The first thing that came to my mind was her having those baby cubs and her intentions were to come back and have them eat me for their survival before they went to their den. I don’t know what told me in my head, “You’ve got to get up and you gotta go, she’s coming back!” And I just knew she was coming back– she probably thought I was dead.

So I laid there, then I got up, I had no glasses, I couldn’t see, everything was blurry. I had no clothes on except for my coat and my shirt on my back, and that’s all I had. All my scalp, hair, was laying in places. I got up, and I tried to focus. I had all this debris, leaves, sticks, everything just matted and hanging there. I thought, I got to find the house…

I crawled out of the woods near my house and I just went. I just pushed myself through everything. I didn’t care what I stepped on or what I hit. I wanted to get out of there and get back to my front door. The first thing that came to my head was, “BEAR, where’s my BEAR at?” I managed to stumble through the house. I went to the back door, the back door was wide open, left the way it was [from] when everything happened... Nothing was focusing at the time, [I] couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know where my glasses were. No BEAR.

I stumbled through the kitchen, into the living room thinking I have to find my phone, I need help. I called [my husband’s cousin], I got through to her right away. I said, [to my husband’s cousin], “I got attacked by a bear”. She was there in a split second, she walked in, and I sat on the couch in the living room… I knew I was done. I felt like I was going to go, I was meant to die. She called 9-1-1 real quick… she kept screaming. I didn’t know what to do. The [EMTs] came in… and they stood there and with blurriness I was just seeing faces that weren’t recognizable, they just stood there and looked at me. [Then] they cut my clothes off and they started doing what they had to do and everything kind of went out. They put me in the ambulance and they said, “No, you’re not going to die.” Before I knew it, evidently, the drugs were kicking in, I don’t even remember the ride.

MC: What do you remember about the trauma bay?

ML: I just remember being in the emergency room… there was a bunch of chit-chatting. I was awake, but I was out of it and there were people stirring around. I don’t remember my husband being there, or my son. I don’t remember any of that. None. Then I remember just being in the trauma ICU, a mess. The kids were telling me they were feeding me ice and Sprite and I was doing funny things and talking funny… I don’t remember any of that. None of that. It’s weird. That part is gone.

MC: You were in the hospital for two months and you were in the ICU for four weeks. The times I saw you in the hospital you seemed to have had a good attitude, for someone who went through something so severe. Anyone who had been in the hospital that long, certainly it would take a toll on them.

ML: You didn’t catch me on the days when I wasn’t having a good day. I always cried on Sue’s (Sue Baro, DO; Trauma Surgery) shoulder… and just started bawling in front of [her]. You gotta be thankful… I’m lucky that I’m not brain dead. I will grant you, I got fortunate that something like that didn’t happen. Somebody was watching me, somebody was giving me a second chance in life, and you know what, I’m living it and ain’t nobody stopping me. You can’t let something like that get you down. You got to keep pushing yourself. There were days in that hospital bed, there were times I laid there at night, nobody around me, all the nurses were busy with the other patients. I’d hear beepers going, constantly. I’d get that mental breakdown and I just wanted to give up… there were nights, my family not being with me… and I got the feeling to where I didn’t want to be here. Why did I survive this? And I do it now. I was used to being the old me. I want to go back but it isn’t going to happen… ain’t nobody at home gonna listen to me at home cry the blues.

MC: Where do you think you get the strength from? You had down days but what helped you get through that eventually?

You want to know who gets me through this? My first granddaughter. She is my rock. And you guys, you put me back together… I can’t imagine someone walking in my house and seeing me like that… and [you all] put every bit of me back together and tried to make it look like nothing happened. And that’s what I’m grateful for. And I even got to have Christmas in [the ICU]. It was amazing, it was the best. And I was here for when [my granddaughter] was born in the hospital. It was a journey.

MC: You’re a big animal person. You have a dog, ducks, and chickens. Has this changed how you feel about animals?


ML: No, my outlook on other animals [such as] ducks, chickens, dogs, cats… I’m an animal lover. I couldn’t wait to first move into [my] house, because I knew I would get to see a deer, I was going to get to see bears and other animals. [The attack] has put some perspective on life that a bear, a coyote, a fox, a raccoon, even a groundhog, anything that I think is out there is not my friend. … I get petrified, I get scared. I don’t even think I would want to go to a zoo to see a tiger or to see a lion, anything, because they’re a dangerous animal… they can turn on you quick… I’m scared to go out, point blank. It’s just, I guess, it’s something that’s going be with me the rest of my life.

MC: Anything else you want to add to your story about going through all of this?

ML: All I have to say is watch… be safe, be alert. You never know. And whatever you go through, don’t give up. Don’t give up. You gotta keep on moving… you can’t sit and feel sorry for yourself. Take [your family’s] help… get the strength, and push through. God put [me] here… I don’t know what my purpose is but someday I’ll find it.

***
The authors would like to extend a sincere thanks to Melinda Lebarron for sharing her intimate story with us and the wilderness medicine community. Since being discharged from the hospital, Melinda has had a successful recovery and continues to live in her home with her family and many pets. Her dog sustained several fractures during the attack but has made a full recovery. The attacking bear was suspected to have been an adult sow with her cubs, that had been seen in the area. The bear was ultimately never captured. The details of Melinda’s case and how it relates to other bear attacks is highlighted in the December 2020 issue of Journal of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. (Polytrauma from a North American Black Bear Attack. JWEM. 2020; 31(4): 457-61.)

***
Case Update: On October 17th, 2020 Melinda had another encounter with a black bear in her backyard. She and her husband were able to fend off the bear and reach safety in her home. While Melinda and her husband did not sustain any injuries, unfortunately, her dog, BEAR, was killed by the attacking black bear. The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not think it was the same bear as no cubs were seen nearby. Bear traps have been placed but the animal has yet to be caught.

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