November 23, 2009 11:05:00 AM
"Don''t tell them you''re a Rebel," Tommy Walker whispered to his son''s badly-injured dog, Tayson, as they approached the entrance to Mississippi State University''s College of Veterinary Medicine.
That was a remarkable statement from a loyal and supportive 1983 University of Mississippi pharmacy alumnus. Athletic competition between Ole Miss and Mississippi State deeply divides families and friends when November rolls around. This year''s fight for the Egg Bowl trophy, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. at Davis-Wade Stadium Saturday, should be no different.
But a crisis, like the one the Walker family was facing that first Sunday in December of 2008, can unite the two camps of one of the most heated Southeastern Conference rivalries.
A dog''s life
Tommy eased his SUV into the parallel parking spot by the emergency door. Normally, he would be at home in Byram relaxing in his easy chair with his wife, Robin, as they watched TV.
"Robin is a Mississippi College graduate, and she puts up well with the Ole Miss-State ribbing," Tommy said. "We''re lucky that we can separate the sports fanaticism from the true things in life that really matter."
Tayson belongs to Preston Walker, the eldest of the Walker''s three sons, who graduated with a bachelor''s degree in criminal justice from Ole Miss in 2007. He joined the United States Marine Corps and was awaiting deployment to Iraq.
Preston and Tayson had been inseparable since his sophomore year at Ole Miss. The dog would curl up at Preston''s feet when the Walker family discussed how the Rebels played. Tayson accepted Preston''s girlfriend at Ole Miss, Carolyn Hill, and welcomed her when the couple married after graduation.
Preston''s military service meant he would be separated from his wife and his pet. Carolyn had entered physical therapy school at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., and could not keep the dog. Preston asked his parents to keep Tayson.
"Parents do what they can for their children," Robin said. "Preston and Carolyn rescued an abandoned dog thrown in a ditch and asked us to take her in. Sassy became a part of our family, and Tayson got along fine with her and with Buddy, our other dog."
Tayson, an energetic 6-year-old Labrador mix, adapted well to country life. He had playmates and plenty of running room. Although other neighbors were within short walking distances, thick brush and woods bordering the Walker''s property kept much hidden from view. The three dogs often wandered into this thicket, but they always came running when Tommy or Robin would call.
Traumatic turn of events
One Sunday morning, the Walkers had gone to church in Byram and left the dogs outside. When they returned, they received a great shock.
Tayson lay motionless, his blood spattered over his body, the grass and the front steps. His back legs, belly and throat were covered with deep slashes, cuts and puncture wounds. He was barely alive.
Quickly grabbing a blanket, Tommy wrapped Tayson to keep him warm as Robin dialed the Emergency Animal Clinic in Jackson. The couple placed the dog on the SUV''s passenger seat for the trip.
"Tayson had meant so much to Preston, and the bond between them was our way of staying close to our son," Robin said.
The emergency clinic encouraged Tommy to go back home. He left, dreading the conversation he anticipated with Preston. He was determined to do anything to save Tayson if the clinic offered hope. After what seemed an eternity, the clinic summoned Tommy back.
"The veterinarian looked me in the eye and said they had done all they could," Tommy said. "Then, he said, ''If you want to save this dog''s life, you need to take him to Mississippi State, and I didn''t even flinch."
Tommy headed to Starkville.
"The staff told me to keep Tayson awake and conscious by talking to him constantly," Tommy said. "I talked nonstop, and he would look at me and roll his eyes. I turned my heater up as high as it would go, and I was sweating bullets when I got to MSU."
Dr. Diana Eubanks, assistant clinical professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, was at the hospital when Tayson arrived. Eubanks, whose specialty is canine dentistry, met Tommy in the reception area. Eubanks assured him the staff would do what they could.
"Judging from the location and the extent of his wounds, we suspected Tayson was trying to get away from his attacker," Eubanks said. "He had lost much blood and was in considerable pain. Despite his condition, Tayson was a calm, brave patient, and we knew we had to save him."
Tayson had a weak pulse, low blood pressure and a rapidly beating heart, all symptoms of hemodynamic shock. He needed blood transfusions but had developed a condition that caused his blood to hamper clotting. This would complicate treatment.
"Animals that suffer traumatic injury or stress can develop this syndrome, which is life threatening," said Dr. Kent Hoblet, dean of the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. "Some of them don''t survive because their body cannot maintain an adequate supply of blood."
Veterinary intern Ryan Taggart examined Tayson and assessed his initial condition. The medical team administered oxygen and fluids, along with pain medication, to stabilize him and protect his kidneys. They monitored his heart rate and blood pressure before x-raying his chest and abdomen. They flushed his wounds, administered antibiotics and took Tayson to the critical care unit.
"Most of the damage Tayson suffered was the crushing and shearing of tissue below his skin," Taggart said. "We were concerned whether he would be able to overcome his injuries."
A long road
With Tayson in good hands, Tommy felt a little more relieved driving back home. In the meantime, Carolyn had broken the news about Tayson to Preston. Later, when father and son were able to talk, Tommy told him all about the day, especially how the Mississippi State team embraced Tayson once he arrived at their door.
"Within 10 seconds, there were five people working on my dog," Tommy said. "I told Preston that while recovery would be slow, Tayson had a good chance because of MSU''s veterinary medical staff."
Preston had some good news to share, too. He would be home for a week before shipping out to Iraq. He joked that his plans would have to be altered to make a few trips to Bulldog Country.
Tayson struggled to heal. Veterinary medical students assigned to intensive care often soothed the dog and even climbed into his cage to rock Tayson to sleep because of his pain. The turning point came when Preston finally walked through the doors.
"The staff brought Tayson into one of the holding rooms," Tommy said. "I cannot describe the pure joy I felt seeing those two reunite. That visit did much to reassure Preston, and it also did much to speed Tayson''s recovery."
Today, Tayson is a healthy dog again. Preston has finished his tour in Iraq and is awaiting orders for a second tour. The Walkers are still inspired by the kindness of their Mississippi State family.
"Ole Miss is good for some things, and Mississippi State is good for some things," Tommy said. "I would tell anyone to take an injured animal to Mississippi State to get the best care if that is what''s needed."
When the Rebels go to the "Dawgs," they have good reason.