When Bridger Walker jumped in front of a German Shepard last year to protect his younger sister from being attacked, the world praised him as a hero.
But Bridger, who was 6 at the time and left needing 90 stitches to fix the damage on his face, simply reasoned his actions with, “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.”
Now, a year later, Bridger’s dad, Robert Walker, tells PEOPLE his son still stands by those words.
“My wife and I asked him, ‘Do you want it to go away?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want it to go all the way away,’” the father of five says. “Bridger views his scar as something to be proud of, but he also doesn’t see it as being representative of his brave act. He just perceives it as, ‘I was a brother and that’s what brothers do.’ It’s a reminder that his sister didn’t get hurt, and that she is okay.”
“It almost bothers him sometimes when he’s called a hero, because he [thinks], ‘Maybe I could have done more to shield her,’” he sweetly adds of his now 7-year-old son.
It is that selfless attitude that captured the hearts of millions around the world last July after Bridger, of Cheyenne, Wyoming, jumped into action to save his sister.
When his aunt, Nikki Walker, posted about the incident on Instagram, the incredible story went viral, with stars across Hollywood — including the Avengers cast, Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk) and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) — all taking the time to praise the little boy.
It wasn’t just celebrities. Strangers across the globe who heard about Bridger’s story were also writing the little boy letters and sending meaningful gifts to show their support.
“It was certainly unexpected when everything went viral,” Robert says. “It is not something we’d ever want to relive, but the light certainly outshone the darkness by exponential degrees.”
“Chris Evans, his video was amazing and he sent the shield. Bridger couldn’t have been more delighted,” he continues. “When he talked to Tom Holland, he was probably the most starstruck because that was a live call so that one certainly left an impression… His emotional recovery was really a worldwide effort and that was so special to us.”
Part of the attention Bridger garnered was from New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, who offered to fly him to his office and provide treatment for free.
“He gave us so much hope,” recalls Robert, who says he was just coming off a disappointing consultation with another doctor who said Bridger’s scars could not be treated for at least two years. “That was kind of our first rainbow after all of this.”
The Walkers took up Bhanusali’s offer and flew to New York, where Bridger underwent two laser procedures. When cross-country travel became tricky amid the pandemic, Bridger started seeing Utah-based dermatologist Dr. Cory B. Maughan, who performed two more procedures on him.
All of them have since helped reduce Bridger’s scarring — and bring back his smile and morale.
“In a year, Dr. Bhanusali and Dr. Maughan have been able to take care of the scarring almost completely,” says Robert. “Our primary concern coming home from the hospital was, ‘Is he ever going to have a smile again, or is it always going to look injured?’ And now, seeing his smile perk back up, that was more than we could have hoped for.”
Bhanusali tells PEOPLE that while the treatments aren’t “the easiest for a little guy to go through,” Bridger “took it like a champion.”
“I probably showed more pain in my face doing it than he did,” the dermatologist jokes. “That kid is the bravest little dude I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t think people quite understood the level of injury it really was.”
“You want him to smile naturally like himself, not like a muted version of himself,” Bhanusali continues. “When we started seeing that, I think after the first treatment or soon thereafter, that was our win… it was the greatest thing ever.”
Today, Bridger is waiting to see how the bottom of half of his scar reacts to the last procedure before moving forward with additional treatments, according to his dad.
Though there is some redness and tightening of the subdermal scarring that will be addressed, Robert and Bhanusali say all looks promising.
“We still have a little bit more work to do on the superficial, redness part of it, but structurally everything looks so much better,” Bhanusali says. “I always told Robert, ‘When Bridger’s in junior high or high school, I want this to be a story he tells, not a memory he has to relive every day.’ And I think we will have that situation.”
As Bridger continues to heal, Robert says he’s been finding joy watching his “brilliant little boy” return to his normal, “fun, gregarious and full-of-life” self.
Bhanusali has witnessed it too: “You can see his personality, you can see his happiness, his joy. When you can look in his eyes, there’s a different human being,” he says.
Robert also notes that he’s forever grateful to the people who showed his family so much support during the last year.
“It was absolutely miraculous,” he says. “For thousands — if not millions — of people to reach out from around the world, to a stranger that they’ve never met because they’re concerned about the wellbeing of a 6-year-old boy in the middle of Wyoming… there’s something special there.”
“I couldn’t be more grateful,” he adds. “And if there’s a message in all of this, it’s that there are good people out there willing to do great things for a little guy.”