In 1993, while crossing the street, a young woman and her dog were hit by a slow-moving van. Fortunately, neither the woman nor her dog suffered a life-threatening injury. If you’re wondering what’s special about this incident, Vanessa Lowery is blind, and Ozzie was her guide dog. “The paramedics suggested in 1993 that I should allow them to transport me to the hospital to be checked out,” says Lowery, “but I declined when I was told that my dog would not be able to go in the ambulance with me.”
Guide dogs are specially bred and trained dogs that work with their visually-impaired humans to navigate streets, manage stairs and escalators, and maneuver through crowds of people. They expand their owners’ opportunities for independence, mobility, employment and social involvement. Spend a little time talking with blind people about their guide dogs and you quickly realize that the dog is almost an extension of its owner. Dog and owner are a team, and they depend on each other.
Unlike family pets, guide dogs go just about everywhere with their owners. Since they are usually with their owners 24 hours a day, if you are called to provide EMS care to an impaired patient, you may also have to deal with the guide dog.
Developing a Dog-Friendly Plan
About three years ago, Lowery contacted me to ask if the Baltimore County Fire Department had a plan for dealing with guide dogs whose owners were ill or injured and under our care. The short answer was no. I explained that EMS people are pretty good at working under pressure, thinking on their feet and coming up with innovative solutions to problems. But when Ms. Lowery shared her story with me about how the lack of a plan for her dog resulted in her refusing EMS services, I knew this was an issue that needed to be addressed.
Shortly after our first contact, Lowery was injured again. This time, the ambulance crew offered to let her guide dog accompany her to the hospital in the ambulance; however, she realized that was not a good option because she could not properly control the dog while on our stretcher in the ambulance or lying in a bed at the hospital. Fortunately, there were friends and neighbors available to care for her dog.
We brought into our discussions Gary Norman, an attorney, guide-dog user and president of Maryland Area Guide Dog Users, Inc.—a guide-dog users advocacy group. We agreed that we needed a plan for instances when a guide dog’s owner needed to be transported to the hospital and there was no one available to care for the dog. The plan would require a facility willing to provide medical care and/or boarding for the guide dog and a means of transporting the dog to that facility. There also were financial responsibility issues and other details that needed to be worked out.
Arranging a plan for transporting the injured dog was the easiest part of the process. I contacted Colonel Kim Ward, head of the Baltimore County Police Department’s Operations Bureau, who readily offered her department’s assistance if we needed help transporting a guide dog.
We had some difficulty identifying a facility willing to accept a dog on a moment’s notice, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but after many months of effort, we contacted Cyndy Minacapelli, hospital administrator of PET+E.R.—a 24-hour animal emergency center in Towson, MD. Minacapelli was more than willing to have PET+E.R. designated as the facility to which a guide dog can be taken when the dog’s owner is sick or injured. The PET+E.R. staff will use information provided by our department and from the dog’s identification tag to identify the owner, or make other arrangements for longer-term medical care or boarding.
The last step involved providing our fire dispatchers with the information and direction they need to assist personnel on the scene, and to notify the PET+E.R. when a guide dog is being brought to them.
Calls involving guide dogs are infrequent events, but when they occur, public safety agencies must have a plan to deal with both the patient and the dog. Lowery says it “makes a difficult situation less stressful for the guide-dog owner when he or she knows that a plan is in place to guarantee boarding and/or medical treatment for the dog.”
We are in the business of taking care of people. Sometimes that means more than just taking a patient to the hospital. Sometimes it means spending time with a distraught family after a devastating event, or helping vulnerable older adults obtain services they need but we don’t offer. And for a patient with a guide dog, being able to take care of our patient requires that we also have a plan for taking care of the dog.