BILLINGS -- When Eduardo Garcia spotted what he described as a mummified bear in the Paradise Valley, he made a life-changing decision.
He reached for his hunting knife and approached the bear. Then it was lights out.
Garcia figured he must have blacked out for 45 minutes on Oct. 9, 2011. When he woke up, he was hurting. The bear had been electrocuted by a live power line and was lying on that line, partially decomposed. Garcia was hit with 2,400 volts of electricity, which burned nine exit wounds in his body, including two in his head. Doctors called him a "dead man with a heartbeat."
After he woke up from the jolt, Garcia, 34, walked three miles to a cabin and was airlifted out of the valley and sent to Salt Lake City.
He would undergo 21 surgeries over the next few months, closing the two holes in his skull, removing four ribs and the damaged muscle from his torso, and amputating his left hand and forearm. Then, doctors discovered Garcia had Stage 2 testicular cancer. He returned to Bozeman for a month of chemotherapy in the middle of his treatment and recovery from the burns.
As he talked by phone on Thursday with the Billings Gazette, Garcia is matter of fact about the accident.
"I can be fairly impulsive, reactive," Garcia said. "I'm just a bull in a china shop, intense. Maybe I should have thought before I touched a dead bear. But maybe it was that same spark that helped me walk three miles out of the woods to save myself."
He has told his story many times over the last year as he works with the Challenged Athletes Foundation and speaks to cancer patients. Some of those patients are now supporting his Kickstarter campaign for the film.
Garcia read a letter over the phone from a woman battling ovarian cancer. She said she has watched the trailer on Kickstarter over and over to give her strength as she undergoes chemotherapy.
“You never know how far-reaching your influence is,” the woman wrote to Garcia.
Garcia’s voice started to break as he talked about the outpouring of support for him and the film project, which is being shot and directed by Phillip Baribeau, of Bozeman. Garcia’s business partner and former girlfriend, Jennifer Jane, shot video of Garcia while he was being treated in Salt Lake City, using equipment loaned to the couple from a Denver film crew that felt that it was important to document Garcia’s recovery. Jane and Garcia founded Montana Mex, a food company based in Livingston.
Baribeau jumped on board with the film while Garcia was still in Salt Lake.
“He said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, if he’s going to survive or not, but we’ve got to film it. And the camera rolled,” Garcia said.
Jane and Garcia had broken up just one week before the accident and she had flown back home to London. When she got the call from Salt Lake about Garcia’s accident, the message was to get there quick because Garcia may not live long.
Back in the U.S., Jane stayed at Garcia’s bedside throughout his hospital stay. Garcia said the film is not just a story of survival, but a love story about how people take care of each other.
“The story is not a hero’s story. It’s about Jen and her ability to love and come back and help me. It’s about my entire family’s ability to do the same. The caregivers rarely get the spotlight. It’s always the soldier losing the hand. It’s time to make a film that captures the journey of the caregiver.”
Jane noted that Garcia’s amazing attitude throughout his ordeal makes the story so compelling.
“We wanted it to be more than a survival story,” Jane said. “There are a lot of those types of stories out there. It’s beautiful to watch someone who has holes in his head and a hook for a hand work from ground zero to rebuild his life.”
Garcia, who grew up in Emigrant and spent 11 years working as a professional chef on yachts, has said his life is richer because of the accident. He is competing in triathlons and giving motivational talks around the country, things he didn’t do before he was hurt. He has relearned how to cook, fly fish and bow hunt, using a hook on his left hand.
“I’m still the same crazy guy, the loving family man. Other than the fact that I have to check for cancer every six months and I have to take this prosthetic off every night, I would have to sit and think for some time to come up with something I can’t do.”
On the fourth anniversary of Garcia’s accident on Oct. 9, Garcia and his family will take what he’s calling a gratitude walk back to the site of the accident. It is a place that Garcia has already visited with Jane and his brother. Garcia has endured pain and upheaval in his career and his life since the accident, but he has also found out how many people love him.