Putting a Chip in Your Dog Might Save Your Life
Taffy is a 15-year-old mutt. Well, she looks like a mutt, with a bit of yellow lab in her, and maybe some corgi, too. Her ears are soft, her fur is reddish, and she’s got a serious case of doggy breath. She doesn’t move terribly fast, but if you had stiff joints and eyes going cloudy, you wouldn’t either. Still, she and a bit of tech that’s smaller than a grain of rice and cheaper than dinner helped her owner just when she needed it most.
I didn’t see the car hit Taffy’s owner. What I saw, as I rounded a corner on my morning run through Oakland on Tuesday, was three people standing over an elderly woman. She was on her back, unconscious, behind an old red car with her head in the gutter. She had blood in her hair and a knotted green leash in her hand. At the end of the leash stood a dog, watching. The woman coughed, once, then twice. Thick, dark blood and something more troubling bubbled out of her mouth onto skin so delicate it looked translucent. Then she went still. Oh shit, I thought. This doesn’t look …
“Did someone call 911?” I asked. A woman who looked very frightened nodded and pointed. I looked over to see a young man on his phone. He was saying something into the phone about a car backing out and hitting an old woman. There’s blood … she’s unconscious … she isn’t … His voice trailed off.
The woman looked so small, so frail. The man on the phone backed away. The frightened woman covered her mouth with her hand. A man I assume was the driver stood alongside the car, a sad look on his face. I realized we might be watching her die.
I knew not to move her, because her neck might be broken, but beyond that, I had no idea what to do. I kneeled to comfort her in whatever way I could when a car pulled up and a woman got out.
“Are you a nurse,” I asked, not realizing until much later just how deeply seated some gender stereotypes are. “I’m an EMT,” she said. “What’s happened?” I told her what I knew. The EMT kneeled. “Ma’am, can you hear me? Ma’am?”
No response. The EMT looked up. “I’ve got to roll her over, but I can’t let her neck move. I’m going to hold her head. I need you to roll her from the hips, gently.” Together, we got the woman onto her left side. “Now what?” I asked.
“I need to clear her mouth.” I asked for a towel. The man on the phone ran toward his house. The man by the car opened the trunk, handed me a mostly clean rag and an old jacket of yellow tartan. The EMT held the woman’s head gingerly in one hand, used the other to wipe away blood, then put the jacket under the woman’s head.
A moment later, the woman stirred. She tried to get up. I saw small, thick pools of blood under her head. “Ssssh…. ma’am, it’s OK,” the EMT said. “I need you to relax…” If she heard the EMT, she didn’t reply. She made no sound at all. She only struggled to get up, with a strength that surprised me. A moment later I heard sirens. OK, I thought. This might just turn out OK…
An ambulance arrived. A burly, pot-bellied paramedic who looked like he’d been on the job for decades took charge. Can you tell me your name? Can you tell me what happened? Can you tell me what hurts? The woman said nothing. She just struggled, then started groaning. He got a neck collar on her. She pulled it off, and fought every effort to replace it.
The dog, silent until now, started barking.
Minutes later a fire truck arrived. The grizzled paramedic gave the captain a rundown in short, declarative statements. She’s unresponsive … she’s combative … Then he asked for help getting her on a backboard. You’d think this would be easy. That woman was barely conscious and couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. But something deep within her was fighting on a purely instinctual level. It took five men to hold her down long enough to strap her onto the board.
The captain asked if anyone knew her, knew where she lived. No one knew anything about her, other than she walks her dog around the neighborhood each morning. I spotted a woman watching from her porch. No, she said, I don’t know her, but my husband is putting it on the neighborhood listserv.
There was nothing in her pockets, no tags on the dog. The ambulance left, and the captain started his paperwork. “What about the dog?” the EMT asked. No one said anything, so I said, “I’ve got a fenced yard. I can take it.” The captain thanked me, took my name and number, and sent me on my way.
My phone rang about an hour later. It was an ER nurse at Oakland’s trauma center. They still hadn’t identified the woman, who was unconscious again. The nurse didn’t say so, but I knew what that meant: If the hospital couldn’t identify the woman, it couldn’t contact her family, but more than that, it couldn’t get her medical history—which might impair its ability to give her the best care. The nurse seemed desperate. She asked if I might take the dog to a vet and have it scanned for a chip. Sure, I replied. No problem.
Any number of companies offer microchips that a vet can, for 25 to 50 bucks, quickly and easily implant between your pet’s shoulders. If Rex or Mittens ever gets lost, a vet can scan the chip, get your contact info and reunite you. Microchips work the other way, too: Your pet can identify you.
I loaded the dog, whom my wife had been calling Red, into the car and trundled off to the vet. A receptionist waved a scanner over Red’s shoulders. It beeped. “She’s got a chip!” she said. I exhaled. OK. Now we’re getting somewhere. She called a number, explained the situation, read a serial number. “Oh. OK,” she said and hung up.
“The registration is expired,” she told me. “But I’ve got a lead. They told me who chipped her. I’ll call that vet and hope they’ve still got her records.”
They did. The dog’s name is Taffy, and her owner’s name is … well, no one will tell me, because of privacy restrictions. But Taffy’s vet told the hospital, which is what matters, and offered to board Taffy, whom she’s been treating for years and knows well.
“C’mon Taffy,” I said as we left. I opened the door to the car. “Up you go.” She had resisted getting into the car earlier, but this time she jumped right in. “That’s a good girl, Taffy,” I said. I was surprised how much better I felt knowing her name. Taffy, too, seemed more relaxed. She looked out the window as we drove. I scratched her ears, and she managed to get fur everywhere.
I arrived 20 minutes later. A vet assistant exclaimed, “Taffy!” The dog perked up, obviously happy to see someone familiar. The assistant asked what happened, so I explained what I knew, gave Taffy one last pat on the head, and told the assistant to let me know if she or Taffy needed anything.
Later that afternoon, a social worker called to say they still hadn’t found any relatives, did I know anything more. The woman was unconscious again, he said, and in ICU. No, I said, I don’t know anything more. I got another call from another social worker that night. She told the same story, and added that the woman “is very sick, and we need to find her family.”
Sometime Thursday, they did.
I don’t know anything more than that. No one will tell me much because, frankly, I’m just a guy who happened by. But from what I’ve gathered, the woman usually carries her wallet and keys when she takes Taffy out each morning. For whatever reason, they weren’t in her jacket, because I checked it after the paramedic cut it from her body. They weren’t in her blouse, because I saw the EMT check. And they weren’t in her pants, because someone at the hospital would have found them.
All she had was her dog, who had a chip, which led to her family when she needed it most.
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