Erik Bjarnason was literally on top of the world, near the peak of Canada’s highest mountain, when disaster struck — and his descent from that life-changing event more than 13 years ago continues today.
He has not been in a freefall since that day, but just like a tough mountain climb, his life has had some exciting ups and challenging downs.
He experienced the low of losing nine fingers to frostbite, and the high of returning to work as a North Vancouver City firefighter.
The low of feeling judged by his disability, and the high of reconnecting with a long-lost daughter.
The low of suffering from depression, and the high of getting an innovative, new hand.
After attending a unique therapy program for first responders, Bjarnason now has renewed hope and, on the eve of his retirement after three decades as a firefighter and volunteer with North Shore Search and Rescue (NSSR), is sharing his story in the hope it could help others with disabilities or those suffering from workplace trauma.
“You are not alone. There is help and you should go get it,” he said in a recent interview. “A year ago, I was a basket case. Now I have a mission: Now I can feel useful again because I’m going to go out and hopefully help other people.”
Bjarnason has already spent the last 30 years helping people, but in a different way — as a firefighter and search-and-rescue volunteer. His efforts, occasionally chronicled in the pages of this newspaper, include: coordinating the 1995 search in the North Vancouver mountains for murder victim Lynn Duggan’s body; recovering four-year-old Eagle Brown, who drowned in a Squamish river in 1996; and organizing a team to help quadriplegic Dan Milina climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2002.
Then in May 2005, Bjarnason himself had to be rescued, along with two other NSSR members, while climbing Mount Logan to celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary: They were trapped for more than three days by a sudden, vicious storm that blew away their tent, Bjarnason’s gloves, and nearly all hope of being saved.
The climbers were plucked off Canada’s highest mountain, but Bjarnason’s severe frostbite would force the amputation of all eight fingers and his left thumb.
Told he would likely have to work a desk job at the fire department, Bjarnason fought back, passed difficult tests conducted by the Workers’ Compensation Board, and was reinstated as a full-time firefighter just 10 months after losing his fingers.
“I worked very, very hard to go back. Everything was different, everything was more difficult, everything was harder. But I was still able to do it,” said Bjarnason, who tattooed “courage” in large letters on his right arm to help himself get through this process.
“I had a hard time doing buttons, shoelaces, really small, intricate stuff (without fingers). But everything firefighters do is holding big stuff — hoses, axes.”
Bjarnason continued to make headlines, and his life seemed good: shortly after his amputation at Vancouver General Hospital, he reconnected with a daughter he hadn’t seen in 17 years; one of the first firefighters on the scene, he rescued a worker stranded on a crane high above a North Vancouver construction site in 2006; he climbed Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, in 2006; and took a teenager who also had amputated fingers to the Everest basecamp in 2008.
“As soon as I went back to work, I went climbing again because I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to feel just like I was before,” he said.
But not everything was normal. He felt stigmatized by people who didn’t think he was up for the job, and he now believes he was struggling under the weight of the traumas he had witnessed over the years.
“I thought I was tough,” he said. “But first responders, we see people at their worst and that has to affect you after a while.”
He first asked for help for depression a decade ago, but there weren’t many programs — or much understanding — available then, he said.
“Before, it was kind of a taboo subject and you went through your life never talking to anyone, never complained.”
Although he was a fire captain who had a management role at the fire hall, Bjarnason started to retreat to his office and isolated himself from co-workers. On his days off work, he drank too much alone. He didn’t take care of himself, making the mountain climbing and mountain rescues he once loved nearly impossible.
“In 2009, I climbed Everest to 20,000 feet, and now I can barely climb a flight of stairs.”
One of the darkest moments of his career came in 2014, when the much-loved leader of North Shore Search and Rescue, Tim Jones, died of a massive heart attack while hiking with Bjarnason and Jones’ daughter Taylor out of the NSSR cabin on Mount Seymour.
“Tim did save my life on Logan and it was my turn to return the favour,” he said, noting Jones had arranged the helicopters for the Mount Logan rescue back in 2005.
“That was one of the worst calls I was ever on.”
Bjarnason knew he was not alone with his depression, because he attended a half-dozen funerals in recent years for firefighters lost to suicide. “All of them were good family people, had lovely spouses and families who cared for them, and good friends at the fire hall.”
However, there are efforts being made to reverse that trend.
“The attitude is changing today. I’ve seen more help in the last year than in the last 30 years,” he said.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue, for example, now has a trauma dog, Lola, to help firefighters with mental illness. And next weekend in Richmond, 350 first responders, including police, firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers, along with their bosses and experts, will discuss mental health challenges at a new conference held by the multi-agency B.C. First Responders’ Mental Health Committee and chaired by WorkSafeBC.
Help for Bjarnason came from the Resiliency Program, which was started in 2017 by two UBC professors in the faculty of medicine and the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association. It brings peers together in a UBC-owned lodge in Maple Ridge for four days to discuss mental health. Bjarnason was in the first group of eight firefighters to complete the program, and has been back six times as a peer leader for others attending the retreat.
The Resiliency Program has now run seven retreats since February 2017 for 70 participants, 60 of them firefighters from B.C., and the rest from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Washington, D.C., along with three search and rescue members.
Bjarnason, who at age 53 says he now “feels good again for the first time,” is taking what is technically early retirement after 30 years on the job, and hopes to turn his attention to other pursuits that will benefit people.
He has been asked to speak in June at a medical convention in Whistler, alongside the doctor who amputated his fingers, about his recovery process. This summer, for the third year, he hopes to return as a counsellor at a B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ camp for children with burn injuries. He will also demonstrate to other amputees how his brand new hand works, potentially attending trade shows with the Washington-based company that made it.
Indeed, Bjarnason is one of the first people to wear this mechanical hand, which was created by Naked Prosthetics about a year ago out of stainless steel with silicone rubber fingertip grips. When he moves his knuckles, the hand mimics the extension of a natural finger.
He tried other prosthetics over the years, but found they focused more on looking like a real hand rather than increasing his strength and functionality. His new prosthetic resembles something out of a science fiction movie, but gives him a stronger grip and allows him to do more.
“Before, it was like living my life wearing an oven mitt. Imagine wearing that for a decade,” he said. “This gives me better range, better control, basically helps me to do every day-to-day duty a little simpler.”
Bjarnason feels like he has “a complete full hand again,” and rather than being self-conscious about the unusual appendage, he likes it when people ask him about it.
“When people stared before, it was because I was injured. Now when people stare, it is because they see something interesting.”
Bob Thompson, president of the company that created Bjarnason’s new hand, believes these prosthetics have a psychological benefit because “self-esteem, function, getting back to what you were doing is really important.”
The company set out to build a functional prosthetic that got people back to work, he said, noting 86 per cent of Americans who lose fingers are men, many of them in manual labour jobs.
“For most males, it is heavily wrapped in being able to look after yourself, go back to work, and look after your family. The way (the prosthetic) looks is way down the list,” Thompson said.
Bjarnason hopes the new hand will help with practical, altruistic and adventurous pursuits.
Last year, he went on an ice-climbing trip in Colorado with the D.C. Fire Fund Foundation, which works with injured firefighters. Once considered an expert climber, he was the only person there with experience in the sport — and the only one who didn’t summit because his left hand was too weak to hold the axe.
He plans to return this year with his new secret weapon.
“This year with my new hand, I think I will be looking down at them,” he laughed.
“Now I can redeem myself.”