It was a pretty day in early April, late on the afternoon of Good Friday, just two years ago. We had returned a few weeks before from a great spring break trip to Provence. Kelly was 13 years old and had a holiday from school. She had a new ball glove and suggested that she and Charley go outside to play softball. They headed down to the open grassy area in the "glen" between the two dead-end streets of our neighborhood. I stayed at home, working in my office.
Charley and Kelly in Marseille (March 2007)
From my desk at the front of the house, I have a clear view of our little street just a few yards away. I happened to notice two white dogs trotting by, big dogs I hadn't seen before. They looked a bit like white chows, with big heads and pointed tails. I briefly wondered if Kelly would see the dogs. Although we no longer had our own dog, she was a big dog lover and never missed a chance to interact with dog owners and pet their dogs. I quickly turned back to my computer.
Some time later I became aware of a frantic screaming outside. Was it Kelly? I could not hear her clearly from inside I opened the front door and there she was, shrieking hysterically for help. "Don't let the big dog get Daddy!!!" Everything was happening in a blur. I saw Charley coming down the street... staggering down the street, it seemed, carrying a big rock. Our next door neighbor was running alongside, waving a cane. The two big white dogs were following behind.
Kelly and Charley came inside, and Charley went immediately to the bathroom. I saw that his hand was bleeding. Kelly was still screaming. I called 911 to report two stray dogs in the neighborhood that had apparently attacked my husband. The 911 operator told me that Animal Control was already on the scene. Did I need an ambulance? I didn't think so. I was more worried about the two stray dogs on the loose in our neighborhood than my husband's injury.
Charley called me to the bathroom. "I need to go to the emergency room," he said. "I can see the bone." He had wrapped his hand in two old towels. We live only five minutes from the hospital, the place where Kelly was born. The three of us quickly got in the car and headed out. Near the front of the neighborhood, I saw a group of neighbors clustered by near the doorway of a house. An Animal Control truck was nearby, a woman officer in the car. She was watching the two white dogs.
"Those dogs attacked my husband," I said. "I'm taking him to the emergency room." I vaguely remember asking her a few questions. I was worried about rabies, thinking that these were stray dogs. I had heard about shots in the stomach with long needles.
"I'm about to pass out," Charley said from the back seat.
A few minutes later we were at the emergency room. Kelly went in with Charley while I parked the car. Only when we were together in the emergency room did I see how badly he had been hurt. His blood pressure dropped terribly and he was ice cold. His left hand was ravaged, and he had been bitten on both arms. The doctors and nurses stabilized his blood pressure and then strangely left us alone. I had forgotten to bring my cell phone and was still focused on the possibility of rabies. I used Kelly's phone to leave a message for my parents and then to call a friend who was a top official in our county government, to try to connect with Animal Control and find out about the dogs.
Two sets of neighbors came by the emergency room to see us and were allowed to come back. One couple had been walking their dogs and the big white dogs had tried to attack them. They used pepper spray to drive the dogs away. They told us that the dogs had attacked another neighbor's pet, and that dog was seriously injured. (We later learned that a dog in another neighborhood had also been attacked.) The other neighbors lived next door to us, and the woman was the one who had been outside with Charley. Kelly had banged on their door, screaming that Charley had been attacked by a dog. Kelly hoped the husband could help, forgetting that he had broken his ankle and was using a cane. The wife ran out with the cane to help. The Animal Control officer was already in our neighborhood because they had received three calls about about these dogs.
I learned more from Kelly and Charley about what happened, and still more over the following days. The two dogs had appeared in the back grassy area where Charley and Kelly were tossing the softball. They seemed friendly and eventually approached my husband and daughter. Charley bent down to let the dog sniff his right hand, palm down and fingers curled. When he straightened up, the dog lunged for his left hand, the handd with the ball glove, knocking the glove off and fastening his teeth on Charley's left hand. The smaller dog laid down and just watched. Kelly began screaming and threw her ball at the big dog. At some point she ran for help. Charley said the dog was tossing his hand like it was a rope pull toy. He tripped on some rocks and fell backwards, the dog on top of him. The dog weighed about 100 pounds.
Charley is a strong man and somehow he found the strength to pull open the dog's jaw with his right hand and get his poor left hand out. The dog then began attacking both of Charley's arms. Charley grabbed one of the rocks and stood up. He thought he would kill the dog with the rock if he had to. He managed to make his way back to our street, where he met Kelly and our neighbor. The two dogs followed behind.
The dogs were Akitas, originally bred in Japan as fighting dogs. (I remembered the Akita only as the type of dog owned by Nicole Simpson when she was killed.) They are considered a highly dangerous breed of dogs. These dogs belonged to a family who lived six miles from our home. Their teenage son had been left in charge and left a door open and the dogs escaped. It was the next day before anyone realized they were gone. The dogs came across three of the busiest roads in Knoxville (including the interstate) to reach our little neighborhood, intersecting with Kelly and Charley the only time that they had ever played softball in the grassy area out behind our house.
After about five hours in the emergency room, Charley wounds were cleaned and bandaged and he was admitted to the hospital. His left hand was especially badly hurt, the most serious damage on the inside of his hand. My parents rushed to join us as soon as they got our message and were with us much of the next few days. Charley was in the hospital three nights, and had microsurgery on his hand the day after the attack. The doctor said the tendons weren't severed, but the damage was extensive. His two fingers (the two left fingers of his left hand) were almost ripped off.
After surgery, the day after the attack
We learned from Animal Control that the dogs weren't strays but did have owners and that their shots were current. So my initial concerns about rabies were at least set aside. The Animal Control officer told me there hadn't been a case of rabies in a human in our county for something like 40 years.
When Charley came home from the hospital, we had to change the dressings on his hand and arms twice a day, a process that took about 30 minutes each time until some of his wounds began to heal. He wasn't able to drive for the first ten days and had physical therapy three times a week for several months. About six months later he had a second surgery to remove scar tissue, outpatient this time, which was much more extensive than we had expected. Skin grafts were taken from the inside of his arm (where it bends) to repair his hand. The second surgery resulted in another round of major physical therapy.
After the second surgery, almost six months later
Charley had just turned 62 at the time of the attack. Although he spent most of his career in chemical sales and later worked as a stockbroker for several years, in recent years he's had a home renovation business. He has enjoyed using his woodworking skills, and he enjoys solving problems and helping people. For hobbies, he does woodworking (he's made several violins), plays piano and uses his computer. He's played the piano pretty much every day since he was a boy. See a theme? He makes his living and finds much of his pleasure using his hands. Because of his injury and the two surgeries, he wasn't able to work for most of 2007.
Now almost two years later, Charley's left hand is permanently damaged by the dog attack. His two left fingers are curled to the palm and other than some tingling, he has no feeling. They're useless. At one point he even talked about having them amputated, since they were useless and got in his way. In the year since his last surgery, he's found other ways to get things done (he never typed with 10 fingers anyway), but some things he'll never do the same. He's started playing the piano, learning to play again using only eight fingers. He can't lay his palm flat when he works and is unable to do projects that require full use of both hands. Two simple things-- he can't wear his wedding ring or hold my hand with his left hand.
We're are lucky, though, and so thankful that Charley wasn't more badly hurt. His fingers or hand could have been severed. The dog could have ravaged his right hand instead. (He is right handed.) The dog could have lunged for his throat while he was struggling on the rocks. His face could have been attacked. The second dog could have gotten involved. Charley could have been killed. Or the dog could have gone for our beloved Kelly, who so loved dogs, instead of Charley. Charley would have tried to save her, and who knows what would have happened. An older person, a weaker person, or a child would not have been able to defend themselves as Charley did. We hate what happened, but it could have been so much worse.
We just assumed that the dog would be destroyed. As you read this, you might assume that too. But that didn't happen. The dog (named Zeus) went to "trial" and was found to be "dangerous" (but not "vicious"). The owners actually appealed the "dangerous" verdict, which meant that they were supposed to use a muzzle to take the dog off their property and put a cover over the outdoor pen. We submitted a protest along with some photos, and the "dangerous" verdict was upheld. When we read the summary of the hearing (which we were not allowed to attend), it was obvious that the owners were highly distraught about their pet and the inconvenience to them-- not Charley's injuries and the impact on his life.
We ended up filing a lawsuit, since we had major medical bills, loss of income for about nine months, and Charley's permanent disability. At the time of the attack, we had private insurance with a high deductible, so our out-of-pocket medical expenses were significant. Our case was just settled out of court a month or so ago. The dog owners' were covered through their homeowners insurance company. We've been able to pay off the medical bills and some other debts that accumulated over that time. We're happy to have the money and get those bills behind us, but it wasn't a large amount considering how Charley's life was changed. Half of the settlement went to our health insurance companies (who paid most of the medical expense) and our attorney. (Note: The laws in Tennessee have since been strengthened to protect victims of dog attacks and hold owners more responsible.)
Our family is now extremely cautious of dogs. We definitely stay away from big dogs who aren't on leashes. When Charley goes for a walk, he carries a baseball bat, just in case. Kelly was initially extremely fearful of dogs and had a lot of guilt about leaving her dad down on the rocks with the attacking dog. She was shaken by the image of her strong father screaming after being knocked over by a big dog. We've assured her that she did the right thing to go get help, and she's worked through her issues in a very mature way. She now much prefers cats to dogs.
I have posted a few photos to show what happened to Charley that pretty April afternoon. You might be shocked, so please look at these pictures with caution. Don't feel you have to look. I thought the photos were important to share to give an idea of what a dog can do to a person.
In the emergency room
Four days later - palm
Four days later - top
Five weeks later
Two weeks after second surgery
For those who love dogs, as I always have, do be careful. Be especially careful around strange dogs or dogs who may be anxious. Watch young children around dogs. I never would have thought that a dog could change my husband's life in just an instant. And I'll always thank God for watching over Charley and Kelly that Good Friday afternoon.