Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Atticus is Fine; I'm Lucky to be Alive

A week ago Atticus and I had a plan to be in Newburyport to get his hair cut on Tuesday, stay with our friend Paul Abruzzi that night, and then be at Angell Animal Medical Center first thing Wednesday morning for Atti’s eye surgery.

We never went to the groomer, but we did end up in the hospital – only problem was it was a different hospital and Atticus wasn’t the patient - I was.

I’ll cut right to the punch now, then fill in the gaps. According to the doctors, I’m lucky to be alive.

Lately I’ve been fighting something I’ve termed a stomach virus. It starts off with a stabbing upper abdominal pain like two tiny creatures are having a knife fight inside my gut. The pain starts to descend towards the lower intestine a day or two later and the discomfort stays there for a bit. Then the chills and fevers start and last for several days.

I’ve always been the type who “wills” myself better. So when this “virus” first hit me over a year ago I thought it was food poisoning and sure enough, after ten days I beat it. It returned about a month ago at the end of this June, stayed for 10 days, then left. Over the next several days Atticus and I hiked quite a bit. Then, nearly two weeks ago, it returned. The initial pain wasn’t as severe but the follow-up pain was out of this world. Each night I’d sweat it out; each afternoon it would come back on me. Then came a night that was unlike any other I’d ever known. I felt like I was literally dying of thirst no matter how much water I gulped down, and I felt like I was being cooked to death.

Just before 8:00 p.m. that night (last Monday) I did something I’ve never done; I called 911 and crawled out the front door to await the arrival of the ambulance. When they picked Atticus and me up I felt like I was dying and my temperature read 104.9 degrees. They brought us to Memorial Hospital in North Conway, just 10 miles away, where nurses and the ER doctor started examining me. Meanwhile, while I was moaning and groaning on the gurney, Atticus sat up and watched over me from the chair and they were good to let him sit there and be with me until my friend Leigh picked him up.

Just before midnight a cat scan was performed on me from the chest down through my bowels and soon after things got really scary. I became non responsive to doctors and nurses for about 20 minutes. The only thing I remember about going under is hearing one of the nurses saying, “This is not good!” Then everything went black.

They took me to a different room and added something to my IV bag to spark me to life. Eventually, when I came around, it was clear how concerned the doctors and nurses were. That’s when I met William “Stuart” Battle, the man who was about to operate on me and save my life. The cat scan showed the gall bladder was the culprit and needed to come out but they had to stabilize me first and the stabilization took more than 16 hours after I first arrived at the hospital. My blood pressure was just too low. Meanwhile I downed liter after liter of intravenous fluid.

Stuart referred to my condition as “acute gangrenous choleocytitis with cholelithiasis and early septic syndrome and shock”. When I asked him what would have made it "late" instead of "early" he said "another two hours".

Around 3:00 pm on Tuesday, Stuart Battle and Bob Tilney, a surgeon who lives here in Jackson and knows Atticus and me, tried to remove my gallbladder by a scope but it was too far gone. They opened me up and went to work on what was a very unstable situation within my abdomen. As Bob later said, the infection was already in my blood system by this time and they had their work cut out for them in cleaning me out.

Several times throughout my stay at the hospital, which turned out to be just shy of eight days long, doctors told me how close a call I had but I suppose I didn’t want to hear it, but now that Atticus and I are back in Jackson, the thought hits home. Had I not called 911 when I did, I may have been too far gone to call it later and it would only be a matter of time before I was dead. And the surgeons continue to tell me that had I not had the gallbladder removed, I would most likely be dead now.

Obviously there are people to thank, including the two doctors: Dr. Battle and Dr. Tilney; a whole slew of nurses, lead by my nurse in the Intensive Care Unit, Maureen Murphy Ansaldi; and then there’s everyone else in the hospital who took such great care of me. What an amazing facility Memorial Hospital is. There's a real sense of teamwork there and doctors and nurses seem like equals. There is respect in each others' work and a sense of community.

I can’t thank Leigh Grady and her family enough for taking care of Atticus each night; and her friend and Wild Things co-conspirator, Leanne Galligan, for also helping out with him. As you can imagine, this was not easy on Atticus. Up until this past week we’d spent only three nights away from each other in eight years and he’s hated each of those nights. But suddenly we were thrust into a situation where we could not be together. Leigh and Leanne endured Atti’s near constant mourning and whimpering and whining. He did all he could to find his way back to me and they had to watch him closely. This means he had to wear a leash and a collar for a change.

Each morning Leigh or Leanne would drop Atticus off at the hospital, take off the leash and collar, and he would spend the day with me. Each night, against his protests, they picked him back up.

And let me tell you how wonderful it is to have a hospital like Memorial Hospital that understood the relationship between Atticus and me and allowed us to spend so much time together! Over the last several days we became a regular sight in the hospital as we “hiked” the hallways while I built up my strength. Atticus, as always, was patient with me, and kept the pace slow. But what mattered most to him was simply being with me. It’s all that has ever mattered to him. He’s always seen it as the meaning of his life and when I needed him most he understood it.

One of the nurses who were around me when I went non responsive that first night, tells me that while I was indeed unresponsive, I did say one word, first in slurred speech and then quite clearly. That one word was “Atticus”.

Luckily we are home. The scare is nearly passed. I have to go back on Thursday for another look to make sure the infection stays down, which isn't guaranteed. My insides are a mess right now and it will take some time to get back to normal, but luckily we’re through the worst of it. I do, however, have one hell of a scar and a drainage tube will be sticking out of me for the next several weeks.

I'm in the typical pain, but grateful to be alive. And I'm so grateful for the help we received from friends and from the amazing professionals at Memorial Hospital in North Conway.

(Because of the stress he’s endured, I’ll be putting off Atti’s eye surgery for a little while. We have time and he’s been through enough lately.)


Anonymous said...

Jeez, Tom, there's fodder for Volume 2. Yikes, what a spate of misfortune that, thankfully, is now working out okay. Seriously, I was giving it one more day of silence before calling Angell or driving to Jackson to figure out what was wrong. Not that I know you much at all but the lack of communication on this blog just did not align with the usual, especially given the timing connected to Atticus' surgery.
So glad you're on the road to recovery and had such a great team both in and out of the hospital to support and repair you. Again, the luck of the Irish prevails!
My guess is that you have many offers for help but should you need anything from the 'port area I'll gladly make a run for you. I'm on school break and plans are loose.
Best to you and Atticus,
Cindy (Hampton)

Jemk said...

I knew something was wrong when we didn't hear from you for so long! I was so worried about the two of you! I did email Angell to see if everything with Atticus was OK, not thinking that it was you that ended up in the hospital. I am so glad to hear you are doing much better. It was really nice of the hospital to let Atticus stay with you during the day, what a relief that must have been for the two of you!! Take it easy & take care of yourself. Keep us posted on how you're doing, & when Atticus has his surgery.

LM said...


We all know you will "hike" right on over Mt.Gallbladder. Best wishes for peace and tranquility during your recovery!


Anonymous said...

Tom, good to know the two of you are OK. Bless the both of you for doing what you're doing.

- The Carrot

Tricia N. said...

What a terrible scare you had~~
Thank God you are OK
I hope you're now feeling so much better!
Bob & I read your blog all the time & we were hiking the Moats on Sun (18th) & hoping that maybe we'd see you 2 on the trail, knowing that you live so close!
Keep getting well, you're in our thoughts & our prayers!
Tricia (pocahontas)

Anonymous said...

I was worried when there was no update on Atticus' eye procedure. I'm glad to hear Atticus is fine and you re on the mend. Keep on taking care of each other.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thank you, all, for your thoughts and wishes. We're doing okay. It's good to be back home but it will be a long road back. These first couple of days has been filled mostly with reading, naps and Netflix.

We don't really need much at this for more mobility on my part. Atticus will enjoy getting his walks back again. For now we drive over to Jackson Falls and I sit at a picnic table while Atticus romps around for a bit. It's not much, but it's a beginning.

Jemk said...

Don't overdo it, take it easy & you'll heal faster. Somehow dogs can sence when we're not feeling good, so I'm sure Atticus is being patient with you & just glad to be with you again.

Ellen Snyder said...

Tom -- I've been preoccupied this week so just saw your post. Wow. Thank goodness you are okay, helped by Atti keeping a close watch. Yes, take it slow and easy. Hugs to you both.

Anonymous said...

Tom, glad you guys are both okay! I was just checking in on Atticus' eye surgery tonight because it donned on me that I hadn't seen you guys in the loop for awhile!

Glad you are both okay! Hope you are feeling better soon! And Atticus too, I know how traumatic it is for you to be away from each other when you are used to being together 24/7.

If you need anything please let us know!
Linda & John

Unknown said...

Dear Tom: Septic syndrome is no joke. Thank goodness you had the presence of mind to call 911. I wish you a smooth and full recovery -- Evan's Notch will wait! It's funny how, when the bond between a person and his/her animal companion is so strong, we are attuned to the slightest change in their behavior and health, and yet are often dismissive of symptoms and changes in our own bodies. Please take care of yourself as well as you take care of Atticus, so many adventures await you both!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, every one, for your comments.

Stacy, I'm still learning about septic shock. I realized how serious it was from the looks on the faces of the doctors and nurses at the hospital.

Wikipedia states, "The mortality rate from septic shock is approximately 50%."

Karl said...


I hope you're feeling better and have a very speedy recovery. I'm sure you're looking forward to getting up and hiking with Atticus again soon. Take care, and keep us posted on how you're doing soon!

Molly and ME! said...

Very sorry to hear you had to go through this. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
I'm sure Atti is doing a good job looking after you.
Take care.

Ripley said...

Hey Tom and Atticus,
I haven't written to you before but have been following you for about a year. We use Angell also for our Cardiomyoptic kids, and Dr. Malakoff in particular.
I am so glad you are OK, not well yet I understand, but on the road. Very happy to hear Atticus is also fine. What a beautiful pair you two make. It is so refreshing to know someone else understands completely the connection we can have with a dog and verbalize it to the world.
Keep getting better and take care of yourself as if you were Atticus - don't put off any weird sicknesses - just go to the doctor...