After deadly crash, woman reunited with beloved dog at Wyoming Medical Center
By Kristy Bleizeffer Sep 13, 2018
Babe was her husband’s dog, says Shelley Leigh, though they raised the yellow lab together for almost 11 years. It was Chris Leigh who took Babe hunting and Chris who Babe followed around like, well, a puppy.
Chris, 71, hoped he and Babe had one more dove hunting season in them. Shelley had her doubts.
“Babe just loved Chris. Even though there were three of us, he was the guy,” said Shelley of Montrose, Ala. “She slept in bed with us. Our first dog wasn’t even allowed in the house.”
Babe travelled across the country with the Leighs. On Sept. 4, the three were in the middle of a six-week vacation to fish Wyoming waters, a tradition they’d kept the last four years. They parked their Airstream camper near Encampment and drove to nearby rivers to fish trout, cutthroat or anything else that struck their flies.
Late that afternoon, on Highway 130 south of Saratoga, their pickup was hit nearly head-on. Chris likely died almost immediately. The impact drove Shelley’s passenger seat backwards, into Babe’s kennel which forced it apart while the truck then flipped on its side.
Shelley remembers very little of the frantic hours that followed. Reports say both her and her husband were removed from the truck by Jaws of Life, the machine used to free people from mangled vehicles after crashes. When Chris’ body was laid out on the ground, his fishing hat placed on top of his covered body, Babe laid at his feet and would not move.
Shelley was transported to Memorial Hospital of Carbon County in Rawlins and then life-flighted to Wyoming Medical Center. She suffered injuries to her spleen, fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a likely concussion, said Mary MacGuire, M.D., a general surgeon who was on trauma call the night Shelley arrived. Shelley was confused and drifting in and out of consciousness. She asked about her husband and her dog. She thought Babe might still be in their camper.
Shelley’s adult children and other family had long distances to travel. Until they got to Casper, Shelley would be alone. Dr. MacGuire knew they had to find the dog. An animal person herself, Dr. MacGuire encourages pet visitation for her patients.
“Shelley had just lost her husband, she was in the hospital and couldn’t leave,” Dr. MacGuire said. “We do try to keep families together.”
Pets lost in auto crashes aren’t always found. Sometimes they run away and hide, which can be especially dangerous in Wyoming winters. Saving human life comes first, and emergency responders don’t always know to look for an animal. These stories don’t always have happy endings.
But the WMC Trauma Team wanted to try. Our Regional Referral Center called vet offices in Encampment, thinking Babe was in the Leighs’ camper. The next day, a contact through Highway Patrol relayed that Babe had been taken to Carbon County Veterinary Hospital in Rawlins, “where she was beautifully cared for,” said Alexandra Leigh, Shelley’s and Chris’ daughter.
Cari Hacking, R.N., WMC Trauma Coordinator, drove 2 hours to Rawlins to pick up Babe and drove 2 hours back to reunite her with her family. Though Babe apparently walked into the vet in Rawlins, she couldn’t use her back legs by the time Hacking got her. So Hacking and her colleagues wheeled Babe into the hospital on a bariatric wheelchair.
“You can imagine how enormously overwhelmed I was. To rest my feeble brain on the comforts of a dog was so relaxing to me,” Shelley said. “It was like a return to normal: To care and worry for her, and what that would mean to the rest of my life, after my husband dying. I mean, she was one of us.”
Shelley and Chris were married 43 years, each other’s first and only spouse. Chris was taken a little too soon, Shelley said, but his life will be celebrated.
Dr. MacGuire arranged for her vet clinic, Westside Animal Hospital in Casper, to continue Babe’s treatment, and the yellow lab was already in Casper by the time Shelley’s family arrived. Each night, they picked up Babe from Westside and wheeled her to Shelley’s hospital room.
The family – Shelley’s children, Alexandra and Christopher, along with Chris’ siblings Stuart Leigh and Susan Leigh– want to express their deep gratitude for great care and concern for Shelley, Chris and Babe: For the veterinary care in Rawlins and Casper; for all the people who took it upon themselves to track down the yellow lab; and for all the doctors, nurses and staff members they’ve encountered at Wyoming Medical Center. Shelley stayed several days on both our Neuro and Surgical Floors, and the staff went out of their way to get whatever they needed.
“I want to thank each and every one of them for their lovely attitude,” Shelley said. “We travel a lot with our dog, and the people of Wyoming are the most dog friendly. People are more kind in Wyoming; they are more considerate. These are the bits of humanity that make life so pleasant.”
Hacking insists the staff just did what was right for the patient. But watching Babe and Shelley reunite in the hospital room reminded her why she and her colleagues became nurses in the first place.
“Sometimes, we do our day-to-day routine and we forget why we got into health care. This was a really big moment for everyone in the trauma office, because we’re not normally at the bedside. We don’t get to do this kind of thing very often,” Hacking said. “Making a difference in her care – because it really did help her emotionally, I think – is why we got into nursing.”
Shelley was discharged from Wyoming Medical Center on the afternoon of Sept. 10. Her injuries means she can’t fly, so she, Alexandra and Babe are driving back to Alabama together. Shelley expects it will take five days or more, stopping every two hours to walk and rest.
Which brings us back to Babe, Chris’ best friend and hunting dog. Vets suspect swelling on her spinal cord caused the weakness and soreness on her hind legs. They hope steroids will help. Alexandra has a wagon for the trip, just in case.
No question, Babe comforted Shelley and her family during a deeply sad, stressful and confusing time. But think also of what having Shelley meant for Babe.
“The dog is grieving too,” Susan Leigh said. “To see her come in the room, to see her agitation and how she settled down by being with her loved one, her main gal, it made a huge difference. The benefit went both ways.”