A native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, van Tighem trained as a nurse at Mount Royal College and the University of Victoria. She and her husband, medical student Trevor Janz, had been married for three years when they decided to take a vacation in the Canadian Rockies.
On a sunny autumn day in 1983, the couple was returning from a hike to Crypt Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park when they encountered a female grizzly and her cubs feeding on the carcass of a bighorn sheep. The adult bear attacked Trevor first, biting him in the leg and swiping at his face. Van Tighem tried to escape by climbing a tree, but the bear rammed into its trunk three times and knocked her to the ground, then mauled her.
Trevor suffered injuries to his leg as well as a crushed nose and jaw, but he eventually healed and became a physician. Patricia lost her left eye and her face was permanently disfigured.
In the 22 years since the incident, van Tighem suffered from chronic pain, nightmares and post-traumatic stress. She endured more than 30 reconstructive surgeries and years of debilitating depression that sent her on frequent trips to mental institutions. People stared at her injuries and treated her like she was mentally challenged. To combat her despondence, van Tighem wrote the book, “The Bear’s Embrace,” which was published in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and nominated for several awards.
“In the time right after our attack I couldn’t get the imagery out of my head. I used to write all the time and I was in the habit of it, so I started to write initially about the actual mauling and then branched out in other directions (like the hospital) in order to stop the visions cycling through my head,” van Tighem once said.
Although the couple later separated, their story was featured on National Geographic and BBC television. Van Tighem also founded a branch of AboutFace, an organization that supports people with facial disfigurements. She is survived by their four children.