The picture of a dog licking the face of a firefighter who had rescued her and her unborn puppies from a fire reminded me of an experience that happened earlier in my firefighting career.
On a hot July day in 1995 I was heading home with a carload of groceries when our mutual aid department was toned out for a house fire. “Great, we’ll be called in next; I hope it’s nothing because the ice cream’s going to melt in the car…” Sure enough, my department was toned out, so I changed direction and responded to the scene.
Because the fire was right on a district border, the neighboring city department had also been dispatched to the scene. The city pumper was the first to arrive and reported a working fire with flames from the front of the structure. Oh well, there goes the ice cream.
I arrived on scene, geared up and went to do what I could until my department apparatus arrived. I noticed that a city firefighter had entered the structure by himself with the hose line, so I decided to pack up and help him. There was no command structure in place at the time, nor any other apparatus, so I helped myself to an MSA pack from the city truck.
(First mistake: attempting to don SCBA that you haven’t practiced with. If you’re going to do it, at least make sure nobody is watching. Scott and MSA are like day and night.)
I finally got the mask working and followed the hose line into the house, although by this time the fire was knocked down. So I started a secondary search of the house and discovered a small white poodle on the floor of a bedroom. At first I thought it was a stuffed animal; it was soot-covered but otherwise unharmed, except that it wasn’t breathing.
I brought the animal out of the house and laid it in the grass, kneeling beside it to check for signs of life. The homeowner ran up and began crying when she saw me tending to her dog. I thought “hey, might as well make it look good,” so I began chest compressions on the spot I judged the dog’s heart ought to be.
(Second mistake: If you’re going to perform canine CPR, wouldn’t it be good to practice it or at least be somewhat instructed?)
I may have started with compressions as a stall tactic to consider the problem of rescue breathing, since mouth to mouth isn’t physically possible on a dog. This was a small dog, and it was either mouth-to-nose resuscitation with no barrier device, or nothing. By now the realization that this poor little fellow had been living and breathing a few short minutes before had set in, and I was determined more than ever to save its life. So it was mouth-to-nose, holding the mouth shut and lips sealed as best I could.
By this time an ambulance crew had come over and they were setting up oxygen and a BVM to assist with ventilations. I continued with compressions while an EMT made a seal with his hand to bag pure oxygen into the little guy. Unfortunately, after a while we realized that our efforts were futile. Fire had claimed another victim.
I carried the dog out into the back yard at the request of the owner, laying it to rest in the spot which would shortly become its grave. I didn’t linger to be part of the burial detail.
At this time the fire was out; overhauling well under way and people and equipment were being dismissed from the scene. My department had made it to the fire just in time to be sent back home since everything was under control. I got back into my car and continued on my way home, stopping at our fire station to check in.
(Third mistake: In the fire service news travels fast, with the age-old mode of communication, “tell-a-firefighter.” I should have waited a few days, weeks, months, years…)
It seemed as if everyone had turned out at the station just to hear how Joe had tried to revive a dog at the fire. There was a good deal of banter in the form of mostly one-way humorous, if not snide comments about the situation. I suspected that behind the laughter and good-natured ribbing there were traces of admiration and respect.
For a long time afterward, and because of the high efficiency of the tell-a-firefighter system, whenever I responded to fires with other departments I’d be asked – jokingly - to perform resuscitative efforts on snakes, rabbits, cats, ferrets and other unfortunate creatures caught in fire situations. My reply was universal: “Sorry boys, my record is oh-for-one, it wouldn’t do any good”. But secretly I know I would do it again if the situation came up. (Certainly for dogs, cats, and perhaps flying squirrels; but snakes or hermit crabs, they’ll be simply out of luck.)
At the time of the fire my daughter and her mother were out of town on vacation. They returned about a week after the fire, and a couple of days after that my daughter left one of her stuffed animals on the couch. I took one look and froze. There it was! The SAME DOG I tried to revive – same size, same color (well, a little cleaner), eyes and mouth open, tongue hanging out, identical. It could have been modeled after my late, unfortunate canine patient. I had to touch it to make sure that it was a toy. To say I was freaked out would have been an understatement.
Months later, at our next department banquet (by then I’d completely forgotten about the incident) I went up to the podium to present a couple of gag gifts (that’s another story) and had started my introductory speech. I was halted by the master of ceremonies, who said “Hold it a minute… first, here’s a gift for you!”
I was presented a plastic box labeled thus:
CANINE CPR MANNEQUIN
"fido, fido, are you okay?"
Inside was a stuffed “Pound Puppy” toy animal. The handwriting on the box looked familiar, and I later found out that my then-sweetheart had been the ringleader of the gag. She had heard the idea mentioned and it took her a long time - several seconds at least - to get in on the plan. Her son’s toy animal collection provided a suitable prop for the occasion, without his knowledge of course.
Twelve years later, I look back on what’s happened in my life since my first (and only, so far) experience with animal resuscitation. My then-sweetheart is now my wife, proving that I eventually forgave her for her part in the gag. Our son has left the nest and is now selling used cars; if he ever found out that his animal collection was one beast short he never let on. Our daughter, who will turn 18 next month still has “THE poodle” AND the Pound Puppy in her collection, although their exact whereabouts are unknown.
And I still have the box, which is still labeled as I received it. The box and its occupant are ready to go at a moment’s notice, in the event that any of my brethren decide to practice the complex and unforgiving art of canine CPR.