WHITTEMORE – As any true animal lover or pet parent will confirm, if their furry friend is in distress, they will stop at almost nothing to help. This may mean putting one’s own life at risk, as was the case recently for Whittemore resident Patricia Ritter, 64.
She recounted the harrowing experience of rescuing her dog from an icy river, which led to a nearly three-week hospital stay – and three separate surgeries thus far – to address Ritter’s ensuing frostbite.
While she is still on the mend since the Dec. 17, 2020 incident, both she and her dog Chip – a 10½-year-old miniature schnauzer – made it out of the ordeal alive.
Ritter stressed that she is not sharing her story as a way of gaining attention but, rather, to caution fellow pet owners on the importance of keeping their dogs on a leash or tie-out, especially near bodies of water or other potentially dangerous areas.
“I have my camper on top of a 40-foot cliff, and down at the bottom is the Au Gres River,” she describes of the location, which is just off of Whittemore Road.
She says she was taking her other dog Dusty, a 7-month-old miniature schnauzer mix, outside for a quick bathroom break before feeding him and Chip. “And the older male just disappeared so quick.”
Ritter says she then heard Chip screaming down by the water, so she quickly put Dusty inside and went after the other dog.
“I had never gone down a cliff before. It’s straight down,” she details of the steep drop.
But she made her way to the water and started going along the bank of the river, calling out for Chip. When she could no longer hear the dog’s cries, “I thought he was dead,” Ritter recalls.
While she did grab a jacket before setting out, she couldn’t have predicted what was going to transpire. So, when Chip took off, Ritter was still wearing the thin, short pants she had been sleeping in.
As she was scanning the area, still yelling for Chip, she says she heard a whimper from under the bank, near a small tree which was sticking out into the water. She described it as a sort of cavity in the river bank, and she was simply unable to convince the shivering Chip to come forward enough to where she could grab him.
“I could not reach him,” she continued, noting that she laid on her stomach and tried to wrap her legs around a nearby tree to keep her up, but to no avail. “I had to go in the water to get him.”
She retrieved Chip and sat him on the shore, after which she struggled to free herself from the water.
“The current’s strong on that river right now,” adds her sister, Cheryl Miller, who has opened up her home in nearby South Branch so that she can help care for Ritter during her recovery.
“When I finally got out of the river, I couldn’t get up the cliff,” Ritter says. “I just kept climbing and I’d get almost all the way, and a branch would let go or something I was hanging on to.”
She adds that, although there were trees all around, she couldn’t find any which were close enough together. For example, at one point she situated herself on a tree to catch her breath. She then tried standing on it and leaning over to grab the next tree but it was just out of reach. “I was this much too short, and I tried pushing myself, like a jump, and I could not get that tree.”
As she walked along the bank in search of a more suitable spot to climb back out, she eventually came to an area where there was some limestone and rocks – instead of mulch from the Douglas fir trees closer her home, which proved to be rather problematic.
“I realized it was getting dark and I told myself, ‘if you don’t get out of here, you’re going to die,’” Ritter says. When she spotted the section of land where she thought she could hike up, she knew it was going to hurt, as she pulled her sleeves over her hands to begin the ascent.
Ritter says that Chip had no problem making it up the cliff once she freed him, as the issue was that he initially couldn’t get out of the water. So, as she was also trying to walk back up, Chip kept coming over to her, as if to ask what she was doing.
“He was shaking like a leaf,” Ritter says. “I finally just pointed up and I said, ‘go.’ And that’s when I went further up river, and found that one path going up.”
She is unsure as to the actual distance she walked, but she estimates it was about two hours from the time she went after Chip, to the time she made it back over the ridge.
With no other houses nearby, she couldn’t have yelled out for help, even if she wanted to. So, after trekking up the steep incline, Ritter walked across a small field to reach her home.
Cheryl chimed in to remark that she couldn’t imagine walking out there while being wet, cold and not properly dressed.
“I was bound and determined because I knew he was sitting back at the camper, shivering,” Ritter says of Chip. “And I came around the camper, and sure enough, he was sitting under the door, waiting like a good boy.”
When Ritter opened the door, she says that Chip went straight to her bed. “I followed him and I rolled him up in a fuzzy blanket. And I laid down for a few minutes, I think is all it was. I was trying to tell myself, ‘it will pass, it will pass.’”
However, it didn’t pass. As her body began to warm up, the pain starting setting in. “And that’s when I called 9-1-1.”
She says the ambulance arrived rather quick. Ritter’s home is set back a ways and is not the easiest to access, so EMS personnel had to park down by the street, to avoid their vehicle getting stuck in the snow. Ritter was then carried back to the ambulance, and immediately transported to the trauma area of Hurley Medical Center in Flint for her frostbite – which she learned is treated similarly to that of someone with severe burns.
“They knew right away she had to go downstate,” Miller points out of the first responders.
Along with the quick reaction of Iosco County EMS, Ritter also praised the hospital staff. She says the registered nurses at Hurley are some of the most fantastic people she has ever met. With the extra workload in these current times, due to COVID-19, some of the nurses drive from as far as Frankenmuth to the center. One of her nurses had been working 30 days straight, and Ritter commended the staff for doing a wonderful job.
Additionally, she had left her home in a rush – understandably – so she was at the hospital with no wallet, cell phone or telephone numbers. But the employees at Hurley were able to track down a number for Miller, who was advised that her sister was in a very serious situation.
When Miller asked how bad things were, she was told that Ritter would most likely lose several of her toes and part of the top of her feet. Further, she might be in a wheelchair, or at least have to use a walker, for the rest of her life.
While Ritter is still in pain and is not fully through the recovery process, she ultimately did not have to undergo any amputations.
She has, however, endured three surgeries so far, the latest of which entailed utilizing pig’s bladder to promote the healing of her wounds.
“And they literally graphed it; it’s on her knees, it’s on every toe and it’s on the tops of her feet,” says Miller, adding that her sister is healing up pretty well. And, while she just recently began taking off some of Ritter’s bandages, “It’s going to be a good month still, before she can go completely without bandages. But it’s working.”
Miller and Ritter sat down for the interview for this story on Jan. 20, which was more than a month since the incident took place. While Ritter is faring much better now, her healing has been a grueling process.
Miller says that her sister’s legs and feet look 100 percent better than when she was first admitted to the hospital. “It was horrible,” she remembers, noting that Ritter’s skin was severely cracked and that her legs looked as though they had been burned black.
Ritter shared the same sentiment, saying that when she first saw her legs, she was so shocked at the appearance that she felt like she was going to pass out.
“It affected my oxygen levels, my brain; I couldn’t think of simple things,” she also notes, of some of the other impacts from the frostbite.
Additionally, Miller says that her sister barely even moved, for the first 12 days after the event.
It is still uncertain as to whether Ritter may have to rely on a walker or a wheelchair in the future, but she has been moving around a tiny bit. She says one of her nurses told her that, for at least the next three weeks, she is to walk no further than to the kitchen or the bathroom.
The setback has been significant, but Ritter is indeed making improvements – especially considering what medical professionals told her, had she remained out in the elements for any longer that day. “They said another hour, I would have been dead.”
She has made quite the comeback from the dire situation and, although she is still very sore in certain spots, “I can actually touch my calves now,” Ritter says. “I couldn’t touch my calves for weeks.”
As for Chip, while he was cold and spooked for a moment, he ended up being just fine.
And, luckily for him and Dusty, Miller went to Ritter’s home once she got the call from Hurley, so that she could bring the dogs back to her place and tend to them during Ritter’s hospitalization.
“They called and said she was worried about it, and I knew she would be,” says Miller. “So I went right over and got them.”
Since Ritter has made such great strides, the two sisters are now able to enjoy the silver lining that is humor, which oftentimes comes after making it out of a tough experience.
For instance, Miller playfully teases Ritter about how Dusty and Chip now love her more. But she insists it has nothing to do with her ordering a dozen different types of treats for the doggy duo, when they came to stay with her.
“She spoiled them,” Ritter agreed with a laugh.
All joking aside, Miller says that pets are like family and some people – such as her sister – won’t hesitate to jump in and go after them if they are in need.
Ritter, who has lived in Whittemore for about five years, says she’s always been an animal person. She has had pets her entire life, including having owned schnauzers for roughly 35 years.
“I just want people to be aware to keep their animals leashed up, with harnesses,” she reiterates.
Ritter says that her two dogs love running up and down the cliff when the weather is nice, and they enjoy playing in the snow during the winter. But they don’t understand that ice can break, so she warns that this can happen to any dog in a similar situation.