Tuesday, March 11, 2014

what any mother would do when her child is drowning

So Wednesday March 5th, 2014 was day I will never forget.

I thought it was going to be epic because I made a big decision at the eleventh hour.  I was feeling energized by it, but also a bit fearful, which is the way life changing decisions are supposed to feel, right? I took the plunge and signed up for Marie Forleo's B-school even though my chalice runneth over right now; and I mean big time. It's a gigantic leap forward in my plan to support myself through entrepreneurship rather than earning my money working for someone else in a job that does not inspire me creatively.  B-school only happens once per year, but the timing for me could not be worse right now.  I am currently selling my house myself, which is shaping up to be way more work than I thought.  Plus working full time, attempting to plan my upcoming trip to Oregon to find a place for the homestead, traveling to PaleoFx in Austin a few weeks later, as well as running my urban homestead here in Philadelphia. Somehow in all that I find time to train but there is no time for much else.  And I'm going to add homework to that?

my kids in the Wissahickon Valley Park

As it turns out, the real drama happened Wednesday around 2pm when I left work to take Mad and Chloe on a walk.  I needed to get some fresh air and mark the importance of my decision by taking a break from the numbers and legal releases I am immersed in all day.  The dogs and I have actually enjoyed this snowy winter on the East Coast that everyone else has been complaining about, because we live near the Wissahickon and work near the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, two bucolic islands of green in our concrete and asphalt surroundings.  It is easy for us to duck quickly out of our urban environment and be in the woods in a matter of minutes.  And with the ground in perpetual permafrost this year the the paws stay clean and that ubiquitous snow muffles the sounds of humanity so we can pretend we are already in the Oregon wilderness; when in fact we can have our hike and be back in the office in 45 minutes.   The dogs get to hunt and bound about off leash and I get to dream of of my big plans and walk a mile or two, in solitude.

But Wednesday, what can I say, things went horribly wrong.   I decide to take the dogs on  the "safe" part of the refuge where a man-made peninsula juts out  into the Delaware River about the length of a football field. It is a gas line, but covered with gravel so the dogs' paws don't get terribly muddy when the other side of the park is too swampy.  Water laps at the reeds on both sides of its banks; and I often see herons, deer and turtles there.  We do a quick up and back and head back to the office on most days.


the gasline peninsula at John Heinz

 So Madison, Chloe and I get out of the car and in less than a minute we are walking out to this view above.  I'm talking on the phone with my friend Ted, a rancher out in Oregon, when, Ill be damned,  a deer that was grazing way out on the peninsula became startled at seeing the three of us.  The deer bolts directly at us, since we are blocking his only escape by land.  The sight of a prey animal running directly at her drove Chloe into a frenzy. The deer veered left about 30 feet before it ran into Chloe and leapt into the icy Delaware River, and Chloe jumped right in after it!  I could not believe it.  My dogs never swim in winter's cold waters. They are city dogs who didn't even know how to swim until I taught them in 2010.

"Holy shit my dog just jumped in the river after that deer!" I exclaimed into the phone, and before Ted could say anything, I shouted, "I gotta run, I've got to get this on film...bye!"  Obviously I was still thinking that this was just going to be amusing.  Chloe would quickly realize chasing the animal was futile and she would return and I would hasten the dogs off the peninsula so the deer could make its escape.  Or so I thought. 

Chloe was motoring through the water after the deer, literally in a trance, which happens to dogs with strong prey-drives who get very close to a large mammal they consider a good candidate for dinner.  As I held up my iPhone videoing the event, calling to her, she uttered those guttural yelps and kept swimming out farther and farther until both she and the deer were about 200 feet from shore in 35 degree water.  I shut off the phone and my heart sank. Chloe was a natural swimmer, but at 12 years-old has arthritis and gets very stiff with exercise.  She can't really swim in even warm water for very long, preferring to take short trips across the creek and then rest.

My voice on the 57-second video starts to break in fear, "the deer is drowning, and this is my weak dog who can't  swim for that long....."  I start to scream for Chloe to come back, as I know she only has a few minutes left before her limbs stop moving from the cold, her arthritis and her lack of endurance. I screamed her name but she couldn't even hear me, she was still barking at the deer in that crazy trance.

I watched in fear and horror as the terrified deer tried vainly to leap up onto the ice floe, his front legs slipping off of it each time he reared up out of the water.  As I watch, he tries to leap up one more time and then gives up, exhausted, disappearing under the icy water.  With no prey there to distract her anymore, Chloe, who is so far away now she is barely a little speck of a blond head bobbing in the brown, cold water, looks like she is not going to make it much longer.  She starts to spin around and suddenly realizes she is out in the middle of the damn river.  What had happened?  
Chloe chasing the deer on the way out towards the ice floe, which is about 100 feet from shore

There was no way Chloe was coming back.  I was going to stand here on the banks and watch her drown right in front of her littermate.  How could I ever live with myself?  My voice was almost gone from screaming for Chloe for what seemed like an eternity.  After the deer expired I knew Chloe did not have much time.  I knew she could not swim back in that cold water all by herself.

I took off my coat, pulled out the phone, and called 911.

I was very upset and I remember the dispatcher telling me to lower my voice.  "My dog is drowning in the river."  I was crying now, but my voice was clear.  I knew what I had to do.

"I'm at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge.  On the gas line side.  You will see my black Infiniti in the parking lot. I'm going in the water to get her.  She's pretty far away, I'm not sure if we will make it back--please send an ambulance."  

"Ma'am...wait... you've got to talk to the medic!"  the man said, trying to keep me on the phone.   All I could think about was Chloe disappearing into that brown icy water, never to be seen again.  
John Heinz under ice
"I have to go now!" I cried and tossed the phone on my coat which I had thrown to the ground.  I told Madison I was going to get Chloe and I and scrambled over the trash, reeds, mud and ice. I was wearing tall suede boots with a thick clunky 3-inch platform.  I started to fumble with the zipper because I knew they would slow me down,  but I decided to keep them on because the seconds were ticking.  Without the deer to distract her and keep that adrenaline racing through her veins, Chloe was going to be toast in a minute. Screw the boots.  And perhaps having them on would save my toes.

I stepped into the mud and debris, my boots slipping on the silty bottom, and I pushed myself forward into the icy brown Delaware, screaming "God, please save my dog, please dear God, please save Chloe...PLEASE!"  I was literally screaming at the top of my lungs in anguish. I don't talk to God very often so I was hoping he might pay attention since he might have forgotten I was down here.  I use this method with my family too.  I figure if I don't often call or make a nuisance of myself by showing up consistently at family events I will always be considered a special guest when I finally do show my damn face.  And this truly was one of the darkest moments of my life. I really did not think I would ever see Chloe again.  But into the water I went, on this surreal March afternoon, heading straight for my faltering dog.

Chloe in beg mode
I really had no idea how long a person can swim in 35 degree F water. I have always been a decent swimmer, and I actually prefer lakes, oceans and streams to chlorine-laden heated indoor pools, but I had no knowledge of how long you last before hypothermia sets in and the limbs go numb.  I figured if I called the ambulance at least they could pull my body out and deliver it to my mother if things went badly.
I had my glasses on and my favorite white sparkly hat, no joke, and I kept my head out of the water, which meant I would swim slower, but the water was so dark without my glasses I would not be able to find her, especially if she started to sink.  I needed my vision, and I thought perhaps if my brain stayed warmer it would keep me going longer.  I had a long way to get out to her and back.  I was so afraid she would not be able to hold out until I got there.  It was sheer, absolute terror, and I  have to tell you I've never pushed so hard in my life; I mean I gave it everything I had.  Two seconds after the water got so deep I was off my feet and swimming I ran into something solid, which smacked me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me.  I pushed it aside and started swimming, as fast as I could.  

"Chloe!" I screamed, crying "hold on Chloe!  I'm coming to get you!  Hold on Chloe!  Chloe!"  I was gasping as the cold water lapped around my face, stinging, mocking my clumsiness.  And so it went.  The water was thick because it was only a few degrees above freezing, and there were sheets of ice in it that cut my chin and neck as I powered through towards my drowning child.  But I could still see her still; just barely, her head was a little mop floating so far away.  I was not even sure if she could hear me. Her body was perpendicular to the water now, just her head bobbing weakly and her back already sunk underneath her when it should have been strong and parallel to the water.  Her arthritic back legs were giving out on her.  I pushed so damn hard, churning through the icy liquid and debris.  This was the hardest swim of my life.  

I don't know how long it took me.  I reached Chloe, and my limbs were already starting to freeze but I grasped her collar and knew there was hope.  There was so much adrenaline running thought my body the cold was not even an issue but for my limbs getting heavy and increasingly useless.  I pulled her towards me and I could see she was scared and confused, and seemed surprised to see me there.  She did not look good.

"Come honey", I said, and pulled her back towards shore, which seemed very far away.  I was scared we would not make it.  The expired deer, which had tried over and over again to hop up onto the ice floe just ten feet from where we were now, had submerged beneath the depths.  

Chloe was not much help swimming back. I had to help her stay afloat, all the time talking to her in a voice that I hoped would not betray how scared I was.  And with one frozen arm around my dog, I started the swim back.  My legs and arms were blocks of ice, and they were feeling more like anchors and less like fins as the minutes wore on.  At one point I was really faltering, and I let go of Chloe's collar, thinking she would follow me.  The shore was just a thin sliver so far away.  Instead, her instincts told her to swim to the nearest land so she spun around and paddled back towards the Ice Floe of Death.  

"No Chloe!  Chloe!" I swam back and grabbed her collar.  We only had a few minutes before we both drowned.  My mother did not deserve my body delivered to her like this.  I pushed, hard, holding my 55- lb dog, coaxing and pleading with her not to give up.  I felt like my circles were getting smaller in the water as my arms and legs were tightening, the blood in my veins moving slower and becoming gelatinous, but I thought of all the 9-hour endurance races I had suffered through.  My life had always been about never giving up. Never. 

About halfway back, as I tugged the dog toward shore still wondering if we were going to make it, suddenly there was Madison paddling towards us, who I could barely see because her black coat blended perfectly with the dark water, and at this point my glasses were wet. Madison aka Super Dog, who is smart enough NOT to jump in cold water no matter what.  But suddenly she was a furry black Angel, because it was at this point when I was not sure if I could keep swimming while holding Chloe.  I was having trouble keeping my own head up with only one arm.  But in a second,  Madison glided over to us as nonchalantly if this were one of our fun swims in the Wissahickon creek in late July. 

"Madison!  I managed to say, my voice weak.

Madison paddled over to us, and did a graceful ark in the water and Chloe put her paws on her sisters back, only for an instant, as Madison turned toward shore supporting her sister as if this had all been choreographed.  And that was all Chloe needed.  She came alive, receiving that gift of energy from the sister with whom she had shared their mother's womb.  And it was what I needed too, because suddenly all I had to do was swim the fifty feet back myself, without the difficulty of dragging a large dog.  And with that we all swam to shore together, Madison leading the way.  I was the last one out of the water, encumbered as I was by clothes, platform boots, and exposed fingers.

I dragged myself back to my coat, my legs buckling under me as I fell to the ground.  My phone rang. My fingers were frozen.  But I answered it.  Thank you touch-screen.

"Ma'am, this is 911.  Are you out of the water?"

I was breathing hard.  My lips were numb, so the words came out garbled and sluggish, like I had a mouth full of ice and dirt, which I probably did at that point.
  
"yes......yes....we are all ....safe."

About 4 seconds later I saw two paramedics walking towards me from the entrance to the peninsula.  I struggled to my feet.  Chloe was shivering, but both dogs seemed okay.  All three of us walked back toward them, and I was giddy, I mean giddy,  elated that my girls were safe.  All of us were safe!   The air, which was about 45 degrees F that day, seemed so warm.  So warm.  

As I walked slowly towards the men, there was a big smile on my face. 

They peppered me with questions.  How long was I in the water?  Did I have any health conditions?  Could I walk faster so I could get out of the cold? 

As I looked towards the parking lot, there were about two cop cars, two unmarked cars, and an ambulance. There were plainclothes officers, uniformed officers, and the paramedics; Jesus, it seemed like the whole town was there in the parking lot to look at the spectre that rose up from the swamp with her two hounds. And no wonder I looked like a ghost.  I looked down at what I was wearing.  As it turned out, I was all decked out in winter white that day: cream leggings, a cream-colored sheer long top with rhinestones, and a cream-colored cropped Bebe sweater.  When I looked down at my soaking wet thighs, it looked like I had nothing on at all.  Nothing. Crap.

No wonder there were so many friendly cops there.

They told me I had hyporthermia; my lips and feet were blue, and I needed to go to the hospital.  I just wanted to go back to work, to take a hot shower, and to make sure the dogs were okay.  They were not having that.  Then I made the mistake of telling them I had a pacemaker, because they asked me and my brain was too foggy to be clever.  Never tell paramedics you have a pacemaker, even if you insist that you only had it "installed" so you could race your damn bike.  Yeah right.  You have a better chance of avoiding the one-way ticket to the ER if you had a knife hanging out of your back.  

So Boss #2 and Gordon came from the office to drive the dogs back to Liberty, where they were left in my heated office to relax on their beds.  The police officers had wrapped Chloe in a blanket and turned on the heat in my car while I was in the ambulance, which I found incredibly cool.  So Chloe was okay, but Madison was very upset that I had been taken away after our trauma and apparently she bolted and led them on quite a chase through the neighborhood looking for me.
Finally warming up at Crozer-Chester Medical Center.
 After the paramedics told the triage team that I had taken a
10-minute swim in the Delaware I was asked if I had a
prior history of mental health issues. 

My heart rate was 155 when I got to the ER, but everything else checked out fine. The shivering that had started after the adrenaline wore off finally dissipated after I got out of the wet clothes. In a few hours I was back at the office where the three of us had a grand reunion.  I could not wait to see Mad and Chloe.  I ripped off my EKG leads as I ran up the stairs, threw open my office door and dove into the dog bed, as I was showered with joyous barks and licks.  I did a few work items (!) before driving the crew home. I was damn tired.
The crew after I had returned from Crozer

I was sad, later, thinking about the deer dying like that.  It is painful to watch the video and see the animal suffer and die, for no reason.  But I am incredibly grateful that I was able to save Chloe, and I can't even imagine how horrible it would have been to have lost her like that, because of my own negligence. 

And yes, those of you who have read this far have realized that in fact, both Madison and Chloe are not my natural offspring but were in fact adopted, but that does not make me love them any less.  If there is a moral to this story, it's just the one that has been said so many times before; and that of course is that you never know what life will throw at you, or when, so don't think your life is going to start when you achieve this goal or that one.  If you are suffering through a bad marriage, poor health, or a soul-sucking job; you need to be doing everything humanly possible to change your situation, now, even if it means you have to remove yourself from the comfort of your carefully constructed delusions.  It's not easy, trust me I know this. Remember, the discomfort you must suffer to achieve any worthy goal is temporary. However with persistence and faith, the results you gain from suffering through it are permanent.

Would you have jumped in the water to save your child?  Your dog?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.  Carpe Diem.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love my dogs so much I would have done the same thing. Thank god it turned out ok.

Mark A. Matthews said...

Andrea, An amazing story ! I'm so glad that things worked out because from what you explained, it could have gone so wrong. Your drive, determination, athleticism, and strong will were big plus factors but I think you owe a big thank you to lady luck. It sounds like everything that happened was dependent on all things coming together that were either planned intuitively or that developed as things were in the midst of happening. If any one of those things failed to happen, I don't think you'd be around for me to respond to you right now. Be it that this experience is owed to fate, or having everything you're about come together in that moment to result in triumph over adversity, or owed to whatever force that cannot be explained or understood, you have proven that the human spirit can endure and overcome the unthinkable. You and your pups have not only survived, but you have demonstrated how love transcends species and defines life. I salute you. Carpe Diem...you, Mad, and Chloe will have time to seize the moment each and every day to come. Mark

The Bikinator said...

I am so moved by your story. From time to time, I have a daydream (day-nightmare) imagining what would happen if I awoke at night with the house on fire. Would I be able to find my cats in the darkness and smoke? I take solace in the fact that the last time I was in one of those moments where you have to instinctively act or remain in place (and later wonder if you should have acted), I chose to act. I think that the love inside you compels you to sacrifice when you see something that you must do. You don't think. You just do what you have to do. Andrea, your sacrifice was huge. It could have ended so badly. I'm very glad that you and your dogs survived. I hope you make it out west soon! It's my goal too.

andrea walheim said...

Angie, cats are tougher to handle when they are terrified for sure, but then they are not stupid enough to chase deer into the river. I'm heading to Oregon next week and will post my travels on primal-diva.com. Would love to hear more about your dreams and plans to head West!

Mark, thank you so much for your kind and eloquent words, much appreciated. A

Anonymous said...

this took me a few days to read, not because of the length...because of how much I couldn't stop crying. So glad you and your babies survived, filled with sorrow for the deer. you are a gifted writer, and Oregon will love you when you get here.

Love, Wendi
gypsyardor at. yahooooo
xoxoxo

Anonymous said...

Wow, this story was so sad, and yet so amazing. I am so glad you and your pups are safe. I love animals, and would like to think I would do the same thing- risk my life for them; but, this is something we never can prepare for and only hope to know how to react. Thank you for sharing this!

Fredricka said...

Amazing story! You should be proud of your strength. I can't until we meet.

Fredricka
NE B-Schooler

Kirk Kobmann said...

Being a competitive cyclist who recently developed "biker's nodule," I was originally drawn to your post on that subject. Then I got hooked on your other stuff as well. I appreciate the creative and adventurous spirit with which you "go after" life. Your doggy/river adventure (or terror) resonated with me as well. I have four dogs for whom I also would risk life and limb. And I've had a near-death river experience as well, involving an icy river of snow pack runoff in Yosemite National Park. Arms and legs definitely tend to seize up in near-freezing water! In water cold enough to support surface/flow ice, you probably had between 10 and 20 minutes before the blood rushing to your core put you in a real drowning situation. Sounds like God heard you that day. Anyway, great storytelling. Great spirit. Great grit. Good luck to you. And thanks for the info on the biker's nodule.

andrea walheim said...

Kirk, thanks for your comments. Some days it's folks like you; those who take time out from their busy lives to read this thing and post your sentiments, who enable me to bask in a hefty haze of gratitude and keep plugging along. Keep doing what you do. Best, andrea

Tim Pervious said...

Hero. Madison, too. I think it's this, as said by Mark Mathews: "having everything you're about come together in that moment to result in triumph over adversity". That was one of the most exciting, harrowing pieces I've ever read, definitely by anyone I've actually met. Dramatically written, paced, & perfectly worded. Great suspense. Amazing courage. I won't say "typical Andrea", but not totally surprising- it's just who you are. We couldn't be very close friends, but there's no denying some of the almost incredible qualities you possess. If there were ever a statue of you, like old Atalanta or Artemis, it'd be cast in marble, not bronze. Mentally one of the toughest people I've ever met. And tenacious. And argumentative. Contradictory. And loving. Amazing stuff.

Anonymous said...

No doubt about it, I would have done the same.