by Lesley Scott
This badly injured pit bull puppy showed the clinic how brave and sweet these dogs can be.
Before Caitlyn, we had Phoenix.
What a Brave Puppy!
In November, 2001, animal control officers rushed into Veterinary Specialty Care with an injured dog. I worked at the clinic evenings, doing post op meds and treating critically ill patients and have seen many horrible injuries and illnesses.
But what I saw that day, I never hope to see again. The whole surgery team, equally horrified, looked closely at a six month old pit bull puppy. Her owner, a thirteen year old boy, drenched her with kerosene and lit her on fire. The pup, lucky to still be alive, would surely not survive such serious burns over most of her body.
Dr. Henri Bianucci, our Board Certified Veterinary Surgeon, told his techs, Erin and Josie, “Quickly, get her into the prep room! Quickly, quickly!” Once on the tub table we used for pre op, the puppy tried to wag what was left of her tail and licked me in the face. After all of her neglect and cruel treatment seemed not to matter to the brave pup. I couldn’t help it, one tear rolled down cheek. I wiped my face and got back to the life-saving business.
Erin carefully slid in the IV catheter through the burned skin of her leg and Josie administered the pit puppy with Propofol, which paralyzed her whole body. Josie had only seconds to insert the trach tube so we could hook her up to the anesthesia machine and rush her into the surgical suite. The pup was holding on to her life, just like a pit bull. Using his scalpel and other surgical instruments, Dr. Bianucci scraped and pulled off sheets of horrid, putred burned flesh. That smell will stay with me for life. I imagine firefighters live with those smells and much worse. This one, here on the table, didn't even look like she should be alive.
Josie, Erin and I began to debride the necrotic tissue while she was still out. That involved scrubbing the puppy with rough gauze soaked with Nolvasan, a powerful disinfectant that prevents infection. The solution made the horrible smell seem a little better. The flesh underneath her severe burns was pink and sticky. At least, Dr. B. removed the worst of the puppy’s torched skin and she survived the long surgery. That didn’t mean she was going to live. Her treatments would be painful and she would face a long recovery.
The other techs and Dr. B stayed at the clinic for a few hours, waiting for the puppy to recover from the anesthesia. We did give her some morphine, though she never once whined or whimpered. Dr. Bianucci told me, “Remember that she may come back convulsing or shaking. Give her a cc of diazepam and call me.” He knew he could trust me to respond to an emergency because that was my job as night nurse. I would call immediately if complications developed.
Oddly enough, the pit bull pup seemed to wake up as if she had been napping. I took her vital signs and changed her fluid bag, and she licked my face again. This time I smiled at this poor pup instead of crying. Even though she had no eyelids, she gave me a loving look. I felt a lump in my throat, thinking of the horror she had survived. How could someone do such a hateful thing to such a sweet pet? Why did she seem to love everyone afterwards?
For the rest of the night, I sat in a chair next to her cage, hardly taking my eyes off of the recovering girl. I tried willing her to live and prayed she would. She sure had a good attitude and I knew she was in pain, but she never complained. I noticed long ago that pit bulls can handle a lot of pain.
I loved to recover pit bulldogs after surgery because they were stoic, while labs and other dogs seemed to always yelp and whine loudly, even with morphine on board. The pit bulls I’ve dealt with have always been good tempered, contrary to popular belief. I have dealt with maybe a hundred in my animal control career and a good number working for veterinarians.
I wanted to hold her, comfort her and tell her she would be alright, but her raw skin prevented much contact. So I rubbed her pink nose through the wire. She must have been a lovely color before her injuries. It was hard to tell, but I thought she may have been light tan on white. We may never know for sure.
When I finished my shift, the puppy seemed to be sleeping, even without eyelids. To block out the light. I turned off all of the lights so she could find some real sleep. She would need all of her strength. Since she was young and had the will to live, I hoped she would make it through the procedures she faced, like scrubbing her with Nolvasan. I wondered where Dr. B. would find any healthy skin to graft. Clearly, this case was one of his most challenging.
I called the clinic at eight a.m. the next morning and asked Cherry, “How is the puppy?” She informed me that she was up and eating, not acting like her whole body was nearly burned to a crisp. I couldn’t wait to see for myself. My shift started at six p.m. and I didn’t want to wait that long to see for myself. I couldn't get that burned smell out of my mind. In case she didn't make it, I wanted to see her one more time. How morbid!
An hour and a half early, I arrived to find our team upbeat and hopeful about our brave little patient. She was a big puppy, probably weighing thirty pounds. She would grow larger and heavier in time if she lived. It seemed like she may have her time back, thanks to Dr. Bianucci and his crackerjack team.
“We need to call her something,” Josie said, “I’m tired of calling her a puppy or the 'burn patient'.” So we came up with some names, but none suited. She needed a special name. Giving her a name instead of a diagnosis made her seem less like a patient and more like a friend. We all felt it would bring her good luck.
“I know!” I exclaimed, “Let’s call her 'Phoenix' because she arose from the ashes.” Phoenix seemed to like her new name. But then, she liked being called almost anything. Even with the nasty debriding twice a day, she sat still and didn’t act painful. It made me feel painful as I scraped her down with a soft brush. I know the procedure had to hurt, and badly. She never once whimpered.
She was given morphine to make her feel better, though she never complained. “What a wonderful, sweet and brave dog you are, Miss Phoenix! Good girl,” I told her often. I felt a strong attachment to her since I spent a lot of time with Phoenix. Taking care of her was one of my many duties. We had other patients, but luckily, none were critical at that time.
When everything died down and the treatments of the other patients were done, I let Phoenix outside of the kennel. She spent her time sitting on my left foot. When I had to replace bags of the IV pumps or give an injection, she stayed at my side, behaving like she belonged to me. She waited patiently until I hooked her back up to her IV. She and I had a connection. I felt like she was mine. Maybe she had special feelings for me, too.
All of the local television stations had the population riveted with the case of Phoenix, though no one knew what would happen to the kid that set his pet on fire. He would probably end up in “Juvie” for a while. I had no doubt he’d eventually end up in prison for some violent crime or worse, be a successful Psychopath and commit horrible and violent acts, or become a serial killer. Psychopaths start out torturing and killing small helpless animals and lighting fires. On one of several newscasts, Phoenix's body was blurred out because of the graphic and disturbing sight of her injuries. Though the poor dog was horrible sight, her personality made her seem beautiful. Dr. Jamison, an eye specialist, somehow rebuilt her eyelids with skin grafts. Her ears were gone for good. She could still hear very well, especially when she heard me fixing her dinner. She always had a healthy appetite.
Several months later, Phoenix needed no more treatments, just basic nursing care. Everything that the clinic could have done was over. She deserved a loving, home, though everyone would love to keep her at the clinic. Yet she needed a really good, nurturing home and a lot more attention than we could give her at the clinic. We all put out the word to a select few to find someone to adopt this great pup.
Nancy, our accountant, was especially fond of Phoenix and she of Nancy. Dr. Bianucci took her aside and asked, “Nancy, would you like to foster Phoenix until we can find her a permanent home? We’ll provide the food and medication.”
Nancy responded, “No I will not foster Phoenix! I want her forever.” So there you go --- problem solved. Nancy was the perfect home. She had time to spend walking her and playing with her kids. She had a big shady fenced back yard, though it was clear she would keep Phoenix inside. Because she had almost no real coat, the sun shining on her wouldn’t be wise.
I cheered when I found out that Nancy adopted my Phoenix. As I held Phoenix against my face, I cried happy tears, knowing she would have a wonderful life. After all the brave pup went through, she deserved the best. I would miss her goofy puppy playing and having her by my side during my shift. She was such great company. I would be alone for a while until the next stray dog or unclaimed dog or cat came along. No dog has touched my heart like that brave pup, Phoenix.
The next day, Nancy and her husband, Jake, dropped by to visit with their new puppy, our Phoenix. She wore a cute shirt that was blue with white around the sleeves. She hardly looked like she had gone through such a horrible ordeal. She recognized me first and jumped into my lap. She kissed me and wiggled her whole rear end. Phoenix showed everyone how resilient and how affectionate pit bulls can be.
Nancy had another surprise. A local and world known talented artist donated to us a portrait of Phoenix. The painting looked just like Phoenix and on the bottom, it read, “God Bless you for saving my life.” The painting was donated and dedicated to Dr. Henri Bianucci and Staff for their uphill battle that saved the life of a wonderful dog. We hung the picture on the side wall. Now everyone could see the Clinic's "Special Miracle."