By Dr. Tony Johnson
July 21, 2011
I had the honor of working on a true hero last week; Shadow the K9 police officer. The story surrounding how we met is tragic, but Shadow was able to pull off one small bright spot in midst of a lot of pain and suffering, of both the human and animal variety.
I received a text message first thing in the morning about a police dog whowas being brought to the Purdue Veterinary Teaching Hospital for treatment that morning. I had few details at that point, but as I drove into the teaching hospital (I have about a 90-minute commute) I caught several news reports on what had happened the previous night. I had never before heard about one of my patients on the radio prior to meeting them. It was a strange feeling, and a bit of a portent for the media blitz that would follow.
Shadow was accompanying his handler, officer Brent Long, on an arrest warrant call. This was no usual warrant mission: along with officers of the Terre Haute Police Department, where Shadow and Long had been serving for several years, were agents of the US Marshals and several other law enforcement entities. They were looking for a very bad man, indeed, and they had found him at home.
As the day unfolded, and police surrounded the property, the man they were looking for hid in a closet and then shot both officer Long and Shadow. Long received two shots to the head, and Shadow took a bullet to the face.Â The perpetrator was killed in the ensuing firefight, perhaps by Officer Long returning fire. Tragically, Officer Long died of his injuries at a nearby hospital soon afterwards.
Details on exactly what went on inside the house are still sketchy, but when the gunsmoke cleared two men wereÂ dead or dying and a dog was critically wounded and bleeding.
Shadow was taken to a local animal hospital, where he was stabilized before being brought to the Animal Emergency Service at Purdue for definitive care. He was being accompanied by other officers of the Terre Haute PD, and had been brought on the two-hour journey in a squad car with an escort.When we got the call that Shadow was almost there, we prepared for the worst. Oxygen, gurney, bandages all were at the ready in case he should arrive in rough shape. When he walked out of the car and into the hospital under his own power, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. He looked remarkably good for having been shot in the face and having just lost his best friend and handler.
Police dogs are trained to be loyal and fierce. They exist to protect their handlers, take a bullet for them if needed, and to get the bad guy by cunning, cornering or chomping. For all their positive and potentially life-saving attributes, they are not the most cooperative of patients. We need to do things to patients that can be uncomfortable, and we are utter strangers. To a police dog, a stranger could just as easily be a bad guy out to get the handler as a well-meaning doctor out to dress their wounds. We knew we would have our work cut out for us, and we were at a disadvantage in that we didn’t have Shadow’s handler there to tell him it was OK. Luckily, officers (especially K9 officers) are a tight-knit group, and we had one of officer Long’s friends on the force there to help us with Shadow. Shadow knew and trusted him, and he was of great help in assisting us in the task of getting Shadow back together.
In the exam room, Shadow looked around warily, uncertain of the new folks in white labcoats. He had been shot on the right side of his face, and had bled into the space below his jaw, causing a pocket of blood (called a hematoma) to form. The bullet had entered just below his jaw and traveled upward. What it hit along its trajectory was anybody’s guess at this point. The fact that he had not met with the same fate as officer Long was miracle enough for us, but the possibility of serious injury was still present.
We took Shadow to the anesthesia induction room. We decided that a CT scan of his head would give us the most information about what had been damaged, and what we needed to do to fix it. The area under the jaw has some major nerves and blood vessels running through it, and the possibility that his jaw had been shattered and would require surgery meant that I had to coordinate lots of different specialists that day.Â Anesthesia, dentistry, orthopedics and soft tissue surgery all had a handle in the plan. Trying to coordinate all of these doctors and services on a moment’s notice was a stressful and herculean task, but each one did their part and did the best they could to make themselves available for Shadow. Things moved with a greater than usual ease, likely because of the high degree of emotion surrounding theÂ case. I was also lucky enough to have one of our best interns with me that day, as well as two bright and highly capable veterinary students on “Team Shadow.” It is asking a lot for students to be thrust into the middle of a big and high-profile case (not to mention the unanticipated TV appearances that would crop up later), but they all performed admirably, and I am proud of all of them.
In order to get an animal under anesthesia, a process known as induction, an IV catheter needs to be placed. This requires close proximity to the patient, and about 5 or 10 minutes of time. For animals who are likely to bite us during this process, we will often use a muzzle. For Shadow, we felt a muzzle would not work out as his injury was exactly in the area where a muzzle would fit over his snout. This put is in the precarious position of having to handle a dog who was trained to bite, without the means to protect ourselves. This was one of the first of several technical hurdles we would have to face during Shadow’s time with us. Luckily, the anesthesiologist was able to devise a plan that involved an intramuscular injection to render Shadow unconscious, followed by placing the IV catheters and hooking up monitors soon afterwards.Â There would be a short window where we would not have IV access if we needed to give drugs, but with the help of one of the officers we were able to give the injection and Shadow was safely asleep a short time afterwards.
As we were working on diagnosing the extent of his injuries, a media presence slowly built up outside the teaching hospital. The whole incident, from the tragic loss of Officer Long to the efforts to save Shadow, was becoming a major local story and we were right in the center of it all. There is always a lot at stake when an animal or person is critically injured, but the high emotional toll that the deaths had taken on all involved, coupled with the scrutiny and intrusiveness of the media, made the stress level in the hospital soar that day. We were able to keep our cool and function as a team, however, as we knew that that was the best way to ensure a good outcome for at least one member of the police team.
We are lucky enough to have a very capable and adept media handler and coordinator at Purdue, and he was able to keep the media noise down to a dull roar so we could get on with what needed to be done for Shadow. We did not allow the news crews into the hospital, but made the concession that a Purdue videographer would be there to film the events for later use by the media.
Once anesthetized, Shadow was hooked to all the whirring and beeping machines that monitor life signs. We were also then able to pull blood for lab analysis, to get a better picture of his overall health and how much blood loss had occurred. Once we were satisfied that he was stable under anesthesia, he was wheeled into the CT room for imaging of his jaw.
CT stands for computed tomography. It is sometimes called a CAT scan; it used to only be able to produce images along one plane of the axis of a patient’s body, hence the extra “A” for axial. Technology has advanced such that we can now reconstruct images at any angle we like, so the A has been dropped. CT scanning uses X-rays to produce images, known as slices, that have a far better ability to see through patients when compared to plain X-ray images. They are quick to perform, and within about 15 minutes we had lovely images of Shadow’s head, including the path of the bullet.
The news was better than we had dared hope. The bullet had entered the underside of his jaw, hit the bone at the angle of his jaw, and broken apart. There was damage to the area of his jaw just below the joint; the bone had shattered into hundreds of fragments in a small area. There were two larger bullet fragments; the rest was a constellation of little blips on the CT readout. After confirming that the authorities did not need the fragments for evidence, the decision was made to leave them in. The body would efficiently wall them off, and they were unlikely to cause future problems for Shadow. About the only levity that day was when someone reminded us that, in order to conform to Hollywood stereotype, if we did need to remove the bullet, time-honored tradition required us to drop it into a metal bowl for the requisite “ping-plunk.”
The decision of what to do with his jaw was at hand. The surgeons and radiologists amassed and pored over the images. A 3-D computer reconstruction was made of the slices from the CT scan. As I watched from the control room, a spectral image of Shadow’s head appeared on the monitor as he slept inside the gantry of the CT scanner. I could only hope that he was dreaming of getting the bad guy. The reconstruction allowed us to flip and position his skull as we liked, so we could see the damage from all angles.Â After a brief consultation, it was determined that the damage was not in a load-bearing area, and was not near enough the joint to require surgery. The second wave of relief spread through everyone that day upon hearing this. It was the same feeling you get when the Space Shuttle takes off without a hitch.
After attending to his entry wound and closing one small wound inside his mouth, Shadow was fitted with a muzzle while still asleep. The muzzle would keep him from opening his mouth too far and moving the fragments, but would allow him enough room to lap up the gruel that will be his diet for the next six weeks or so as the jaw knit itself together. My suggestion of a Hello Kitty muzzle was rejected in favor of a royal blue one more befitting an officer. The irony was not lost on us that one of our original concerns was of how we would be unable to place a muzzle on Shadow so we could handle him initially, but that same muzzle was now a major component of his recuperation plan.
As he recovered in a warm and quiet spot from his anesthesia, wound care and CT scan, we pulled some follow-up lab tests to assess his progress. We found that his hemoglobin count had dipped perilously low since arrival, probably as a result of blood loss and the fluids we had placed him on during anesthesia to support his circulation.Â I ordered up two units of blood from our blood bank, and he was transfused without any problems as he woke up from anesthesia. His hemoglobin count stabilized overnight. He was placed on a continuous drip of weapons-grade painkiller (fentanyl, the same drug that is sometimes used in epidurals during pregnancy) as well as antibiotics.
He turned out to be a better patient than we thought, and the nurses were able to monitor him and check his vitals without danger to life or limb. True, he had a muzzle on and couldn’t really connect if he intended to, and it is a tad hard to land a good bite with a partially broken jaw, but the most we got out of him was a low growl, as if to say “I’ve had the worst 24 hours you could possibly imagine –Â are you absolutely certain you want to put that thermometer there?”
The following day was a hazy kaleidoscope of interviews, phone calls and medical documentation and organization. From the officer who brought Shadow in, I learned that Shadow would most likely be retired from the police force and live out his days by the hearth of the Long family, where he had lived prior to the incident. Shadow walked around the hospital, seemingly enjoying his star status, and hopefully blessedly insulated from the horrors that had transpired to bring him to us.
We originally planned on releasing Shadow back to the family and the force the day after he came to us, but we elected to keep him another night to make sure he wasn’t continuing to lose blood. He started eating the morning after the CT scan, and once he started getting better he never looked back. We discharged him two days after he arrived, and he was met with a parking lot full of police cars and news media. Shadow’s story was on every evening news report that night, providing the positive counterpoint to the stories about officer Long’s upcoming funeral and memorial service. Most of the news reports that night made mention of the fact that Shadow seemed to be searching for his lost partner as he left the hospital and looked out at the sea of blue uniforms waiting there to take him home.
Shadow was able to attend the memorial the next day, partly because all those working on him helped him through the dark night of his injury, but mostly because he’s made of tough materials, and is a survivor as well as a fighter. I know that if he could, he would have saluted his fallen friend, handler and colleague as the procession carrying his remains rolled by under the scorching July sun.