Dog bites woman: lessons learned

Getting injured tends to make me reflective because it forces me to sit still, which I don’t do well. Even at 62, I value movement and action — to a fault, I am finding as I grow older.

Suffering a dog bite at an off-leash dog park, a juicy and unexpected chomp to my bare left calf, has left me hobbled, bleeding, aching, afraid, exhausted and unable to sustain my usual pace. I sought medical attention, after initially resisting, and two days later succumbed to the first round of rabies shots.

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Mia, my beloved Animal Humane Society rescue, gets ready for our morning run.

Here is what I’ve learned from the ordeal:

1. Posting on social media can turn bad luck to good advice: “You should have called Animal Control immediately,” said my experienced older sister, also a dog lover. “They would have impounded and quarantined the dogs.”

Problem is, I was so rattled, calling the authorities did not occur to me. What now? “At this point, I would ask the police to visit the dog owner,” my sister told me a day later. “She needs to be deterred from coming back to the dog park.” Numerous others on Facebook agreed. One even speculated I could be awarded $5,000 to $10,000 per puncture wound through the woman’s homeowner’s insurance. Well, maybe.

2. Trusting people based on superficial qualities leads to speculative results. The first question I asked the woman who insisted her dog only “scratched” me was whether her animal’s shots were up to date. “Of course,” she said. She looked trustworthy. But what does that mean? Turn over that rock, and out slither some stereotypical assumptions.

“Diana,” likely not her real name, was articulate and well dressed. She drove a nice van. She seemed friendly, approaching me later in the park — along with that damn dog! — to see whether I was alright. Again, being rattled and bleeding and in pain, I did not think to say: “Call my cell phone, so I have your number.” Instead, I texted myself the number that she told me, and this apparently trustworthy, friendly looking woman lied.

3. “Tough it out” is an ineffective strategy with an animal bite. Among the advice on Facebook, which I ignored for three days:

  • “You need proof that this animal is vaccinated.”
  • “Get to a doctor with that wound stat.”
  • “I didn’t go to the doctor when a dog bit my finger and ended up having surgery for an infected finger bone. My primary-care doc said to always get antibiotics.”

Ego can drive these decisions, especially as we get older and want to prove that we’re still strong and healthy. I remember a woman 10 years my senior telling me that she feels more “vulnerable,” physically. Not me! I arrogantly believed I could heal on my own, if I kept the wound covered and kept up my usual pattern of walking 14,000 steps daily. Bad plan, as the nurse practitioner affirmed when she prescribed amoxicillin for my weeping wound.

4. Short-term physical pain is worth long-term peace of mind. Because “Diana” gave me the wrong phone number, because I failed to follow her to her van and photograph the license plate, I had no way to reach her. Therefore, I had no way of proving that her dog had current vaccinations.

A doctor said the risk of rabies was low, given that the apparently cared for dog was at a dog park, not some crazed animal foaming at the mouth, To Kill a Mockingbird–style, that leaped out of the bushes on a jogging path. The Department of Health said otherwise. The only way to ensure I would not get rabies was to get the dreaded rabies shots. “I think the DOH is butt covering,” I told my oldest sister, the pragmatic one. “Maybe so,” she replied, “but rabies is fatal if you get it.” A quick Google search proved that to be true.

And the shots? Not nearly as painful as folklore would have it — or apparently, as invasive as they used to be. When I heard that the initial injections were in the wound, I pictured a doctor plunging a needle straight into the bite site (which remains painful to the touch eight days post-trauma). In fact, the doctor inserted the needles horizontally in the skin next to the wound, on either side, and then energetically rubbed the bite site so it could absorb the serum. That was the worst, and it was over quickly.

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Gabby, our rescue puppy from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas

5. Keep the faith. “Here’s what I know,” wrote a former colleague on Facebook, a man who recently traveled across several states to buy a hunting dog. “There are many, many more bad dog owners than there are bad dogs.” Of course, he’s right.

One woman warned me about PTSD, predicting that I may never be able to return to dog parks. Another offered to connect me with a therapist who specializes in “dog-bite trauma.” I’m not afraid of dogs, which I have owned for most of my life. What I am wary of is lackadaisical dog owners — ones like my neighbor who lets his golden retrievers walk unleashed on city streets, reassuring passersby that the dogs are friendly.

I never intended to sue “Diana.” What I wanted was an apology, an acknowledgment of the pain I suffered and an offer to pay my medical bills. I wanted her to make things right, and she failed me. But I won’t give up on dogs, not today. Not ever. I need their love and loyalty in an increasingly hostile world.

A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.

Lucy and Griffin

Lucy (left) and Griffin when he was still a puppy

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.

Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with the all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”