Dog helps woman lick brain injury
Can dogs detect health changes in people? One woman says they can after a small dog convinced her to see a doctor for what turned out to be a brain aneurysm.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Mary Phillips admits she had a frosty relationship with Jacque Pierre, a co-worker's Maltese poodle. That is until the day he saved her life by licking her head.
The unlikely gesture, Phillips said, convinced her to go to the emergency room where doctors discovered a brain aneurysm the size of a walnut.
Aneurysms — bulging, blood-filled vessels — are classified as small, large and giant, said Dr. Michael Chicoine, a neurosurgeon at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Phillips' aneurysm was giant and appeared to have been leaking because there was blood in her spinal fluid. He performed a 10-hour surgery to insert clips across arteries feeding the aneurysm to stem the blood flow before it re-ruptured.
Phillips, 56, of St. Charles, Mo., had a very good outcome for someone with any type of aneurysm but particularly with a giant one, Chicoine said.
"Our concern with a ruptured aneurysm is that it could re-rupture which could be fatal," Chicoine said. "So it's urgent to get it treated before that happens. And even those that are not fatal can cause permanent problems such as vision loss, language problems, paralysis and cognitive impairment."
Phillips returned to work two months after the surgery, feeling good as new and eternally grateful to Jacque Pierre.
Whether the small white puff of fur truly sensed something was critically wrong with her, is up for debate. But Phillips is certain it wasn't mere coincidence that Jacque Pierre licked her head.
A special dog
Phillips got to know the Malti Poo when his owner, Pat Harlan of Ladue, Mo., started bringing him to work at BJC Hospice in west St. Louis County, Mo. Phillips and Harlan are nurses there.
Phillips, a committed cat lover, didn't have much use for dogs.
And Jacque Pierre's feeling was mutual. He's accustomed to being coddled and adored, so he spends most of his time at the desks of doting co-workers who feed him treats.
"He could sense that Mary didn't really care for him and left her alone," Harlan said.
"We tolerated each other," Phillips added.
Harlan came to work Oct. 27 with Jacque Pierre nipping at her heels. She opened Phillips' office door to find her ashen-faced and lying on the floor, trying to relieve herself of a sudden splitting headache near her right temple.
Several co-workers — many of them nurses — had been trying to convince Phillips to go to the emergency room. She refused. She wanted to go home, to bed.
"I'm a nurse and nurses (a) don't go to the doctor and; (b) don't listen when other people tell us to go to the doctor," she said.
Harlan also tried to convince Phillips to go to the hospital. That's when Jacque Pierre entered the room and began licking her right temple as though it had been smeared with bacon grease.
It was a clear sign that her headache was serious, she said. And no, she's not embarrassed that she based her decision on the actions of a dog rather than the expertise of her fellow nurses.
She's been a hospice nurse for 14 years and has watched animals behave in peculiar ways as death drew near, she said. There were cats that refused to leave the sides of their dying owners and dogs that tried to prevent her from touching patients. Phillips said she even saw a miniature shark catapult out of the water, slam itself against its aquarium lid and die at the precise moment its owner took his last breath.
"I have watched the animals of the people I care for, and they can tell me more about the patient than my own analysis," Phillips said. "So yes, I did listen to the dog."
Pooches detect cancer?
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that dogs can sniff out cancer.
In 2004, researchers at Cambridge University Veterinary School concluded from a double-blind study that dogs can be trained to recognize and flag bladder cancer. At about the same time, researchers at Florida State University Sensory Research Institute in Tallahassee showed that dogs could detect melanomas on the skin. And two years later, a study at the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo, Calif., found that dogs were highly accurate at pointing out people with breast or lung cancer. Right now, researchers at Queen's University Belfast in Ireland are trying to determine if dogs can sniff out the changes in the plummeting blood sugar levels of diabetics.
But Phillips didn't have cancer or diabetes. She had a giant bulge in one of her brain's blood vessels.
"A year after all this happened, I'm hearing about the dog. I didn't specifically talk to the dog. I've never met the dog," Chicoine said. "But whatever it is that prompted her to get medical attention, may have saved her life, because she was not necessarily inclined to seek medical attention."
Gary Abelov, a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant in St. Louis, said he loves stories about dogs performing heroic deeds as much as anyone. But he thinks Jacque Pierre was probably just happy that Phillips was lying on the floor.
"When people are on the ground — down in the dog's world — dogs react very differently. I see it every day of my life," Abelov said. "We're giants among them.
"I highly doubt that if Mary had been sitting up in a chair, that the dog would have walked in and said to himself, 'Holy dog poop! She's having a cerebral bleed,' then leaped into her lap and licked her head," he said. "But that's the New York cynic in me. Dogs fascinate the daylights out of me, and they always surprise me."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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