Johan Otter survived a vicious life-and-death battle with a bear when he stepped between the angry grizzly and his daughter 18 months ago. But when the 15-minute assault was over, his ordeal was only just beginning.
For months, Otter wore a steel halo that had to be screwed into his skull so that his neck, broken in several places, could remain stable and mend on its own. He endured unbearable pain from the attack, which damaged a muscle in his right eye and left him without a scalp. As a result, he had to have multiple skin grafts and physical therapy.
Jenna Otter was clawed on the head, shoulders and mouth by the bear, a mother with cubs who may have become startled when the father and daughter ambled down a path while visiting Montana's Glacier National Park on Aug. 25, 2005.
Both are still mending physically from the nightmarish attack, but mentally they appeared strong and determined to get on with their lives during an appearance Tuesday on TODAY.
“It’s nice to see you without the halo, even though you are an angel. Nice to see that off,” TODAY host Meredith Vieira said to Johan Otter as the interview began.
“I had great physical therapy … We really got the mobility going as much as possible,” said Johan, a physical therapist himself.
Jenna Otter is quite mobile herself. A dancer, she performed solo this weekend and is attending college at the University of California.
"I'm doing great," Jenna, 20, said. "I'm dancing at UC/Irvine right now. I don't feel like anything has really necessarily hindered me from any progress I would have made otherwise, if this hadn't happened."
Tossed like a 'rag doll'
Other than a scar on the right side of her mouth, the physical signs of the attack on Jenna are not apparent. Johan Otter, however, is lucky to be alive and has the scars and a vivid memory of the attack to prove it. Speaking on TODAY soon after the assault, he said: "First the bear had me by the thigh. It really jostles you around like were more of a rag doll than anything. You don’t have control of anything."
His scalp was torn off by the bear and attempts to repair the damage with grafts from his thigh left huge scars on his head. More surgery will be necessary.
Having worked with people with broken necks before in his work as a physical therapist, Johan, opted for the halo apparatus over a fusion technique to repair the fractured bones in his neck. His decision proved to be right one, and his mobility is so good that he was able to return to Glacier National Park and finish the trek on the trail to Grinnell Glacier.
"I wanted to see it. I wasn't sure if it was as scary as I had thought it was, and it was scarier and bigger than I thought it was," said Johan, who returned with his wife, Marilyn, who did not make the first trip. "And I wanted to finish the trail ... We weren't able to finish the trail, obviously. It was just wonderful to see the end of the trail. It's just really beautiful country ... It was a sense of closure."
Jenna visited the park last year, but has yet to return to the trail where the attack occurred.
"I want to eventually," she told Vieira. "When we went back to Montana in April 2006, when we were just standing in the park, I felt really just ill at ease that something might pop up around the corner."