Reflecting on the events of an unforgettable summertime shift, Marcia Birkigt once said: “It was a really bad day at work.”
While wholly accurate, it doesn’t begin to describe the extent of her ordeal.
A biologist working with a fisheries-management team, Marcia and seven col-leagues had driven two and a half hours southwest of Grande Prairie to spend a few days studying the waterways near Nose Mountain.
On their final evening there the group had been starting to shut down for the night. Despite rainy weather, everyone was out-side enjoying a relaxing evening together.
Walking alone towards the others about 40 metres away, Marcia was shocked to see a cougar’s head, close enough to touch, poke out of the brush. The two immediately engaged in a delicate dance — cougar slowly approaching, Marcia slowly retreating. Swinging a short shovel, she yelled to alert the rest of the gang.
Suddenly, Marcia was flat on her back and in serious trouble. “The cougar’s top canine stuck in at my hairline, the bottom (canine) at my lower jaw,” she recalled. “Instantly, I could feel heat from blood pouring down my face.”
She rolled onto her stomach, protecting her organs, and covering her neck. The beast, later determined to have been as heavy as 190 pounds, shook her “like a rag doll,” then carried her deeper into the forest.
We explore Marcia’s story in detail in our first season of Mission Ready, A Podcast From STARS.
Her friends rushed over and, seeing the cougar’s teeth clamped on Marcia’s face, kicked the cat. However, it stayed close, circling the group, even attempting to pounce on other members of the party.
“At that point, I thought my skull was fractured, because the sound of a large carnivore chewing on your head is a horrible thing,” said Marcia. “There was a lot of popping and cracking.
“I really didn’t know if I was going to survive or not. I just didn’t want to die in front of my co-workers.”
Afraid to move Marcia — the severity of the injuries was unknown — her friends applied first aid in the dark and tried to call for help but an electrical storm was wreaking havoc with communications. Plus, for a ground ambulance, the muddy logging roads may have been impassable.
Marcia’s co-workers finally reached the STARS Emergency Link Centre (ELC). In addition to dispatching the crew, the communications specialists in the ELC faced another task: Marcia’s then-boyfriend, now-husband Josh Brewster, is a STARS pilot — but, having finished a day shift, he had not been on duty at the time. They had to let him know.
“I heard a little shudder in her voice,” said Josh, recalling the conversation with his manager. “She told me that Marcia had been attacked by a cougar. I knew, whatever was going on, that she’d be in good hands.
“I’d never been on that side of the fence before. It kind of really hit home that this stuff happens to people.”
Marcia instantly felt relief when she heard STARS incoming.
Flight nurse Kelly Holt made first contact with the patient, who was scared and cold, lying on a mountaintop. Someone held a light so Kelly could arrange an intravenous line for pain control.
“One of the nicest things you can ever see is a STARS crew leaning over you, giving you a reassuring smile,” Marcia said. “It just made the situation so much better.”
STARS whisked her to Grande Prairie’s Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, where she spent nearly seven hours on an operating table. To repair the damage to her head, a metre and a half worth of stitches and 144 staples were required.
And, despite her fears, there had been no broken bones, said Marcia. “Really, it was a best-case scenario of what could happen.”
Kelly, too, has many memories from that night — but from a nurse’s perspective: “I got to help her and it went well. It was my job. Yeah, I feel lucky — lucky that I was there that day to take care of her.”
For that, Marcia’s appreciation is plain. Without the quick response from STARS, the outcome could have been much different. “You don’t even know if you’re going to see your loved ones again.”
But every time STARS is dispatched, it brings expert medical support and hope.
“To know that people are able to reach you pretty much anywhere in Alberta, they’re invaluable,” said Marcia. “It’s not just the people who work at STARS. It’s everybody else in the province who are donors to STARS. Because without all of them, I could have been lying (there) easily for eight more hours … and a lot can change. Minutes and seconds matter.
“Thanks to everyone at STARS, but thanks to everybody who keeps STARS in the sky. Without them, I might not be here.”