Anyone who grew up watching Lassie on TV knows the classic storyline: faithful dog senses peril and runs to get help, saving her beloved human from harm.
Few people experience such a rescue in real life. But in September, a man from Reed City, Michigan, did—and lived to tell his story.
Neil Tetzlaff, 78, and his 11-year-old Brittany spaniel, Zelda, left on their evening walk after dinner one Monday.
The two never miss their daily two- to three-mile walk.
For Tetzlaff, it’s a way of strengthening his chronically weak heart. For Zelda, it’s a time to explore the outdoors and “do dog things,” without the constraints of a leash.
“Every time we go for a walk, I always turn her loose so she can work on her problems,” Tetzlaff said, explaining that she’d been abused by previous owners. He sees his role as helping the shy dog regain her sense of self.
“As I tell most people, she’s trying to make me a human and I’m trying to make her a dog. And she’s winning.”
That September evening, three-quarters of the way into their trek on the local rails-to-trails path, Tetzlaff passed out.
Moments later he found himself on the pavement, feeling faint and sick to his stomach.
He lifted his head, glanced around, got his bearings and then wondered where Zelda had gone.
Down the trail he saw a young woman they had recently crossed paths with.
“I watched as Zelda ran up to her and did a dance around her, getting her attention and getting her to look back at me,” Tetzlaff said. “On her own, Zelda saw what was happening, got afraid of the situation, and went and got somebody to help.”
In the meantime, Tetzlaff tried to get up—but couldn’t. He figured his implanted cardioverter-defibrillator must have saved him, but he knew his heart remained in trouble.
“It was just pumping like a little banshee and wasn’t moving any blood,” he said.
He crawled to the side of the path and searched his pockets for his cell phone. No luck.
Soon Zelda appeared at his side with Emily, the young woman from down the trail.
“She said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I said, ‘You sure can. You can call 911 to come and pick me up,’” Tetzlaff said. “Tell them that I’m laying on the ground about 75 yards south of the covered railroad bridge in Reed City.”
Tetzlaff then turned his attention to a distraught Zelda.
“She was having a trauma of her own, so I called her to me and calmed her down so she would understand that there was nothing she could do about this,” he said.
“I told her that she was a good dog.”
By then the ambulance had arrived, so Tetzlaff put Zelda on her leash and asked Emily for a favor.
“Will you take Zelda home for me and turn her over to my wife? Because I don’t know if she will make it home on her own,” he said.
When he described how to find the house, Emily could place it immediately: “I know that one—it’s got the fence around it.”
Emily made sure Tetzlaff made it safely into the ambulance before walking Zelda home and relaying the news to his wife, Lillian.
Lillian hopped in her car and drove the half mile to Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital to catch up with her husband.
In the emergency department, doctors recognized Tetzlaff’s long history of cardiac trouble—he’s had multiple heart attacks and strokes over the past 25 years, as well as bypass surgery back in 1996—and downloaded a readout of his ICD’s recent activity.
The report showed that Tetzlaff had experienced a cardiac arrest triggered by a lethal heart rhythm. His device had shocked him back to life.
So the same EMT team that rescued Tetzlaff from the trail loaded him back up and rushed him to Meijer Heart Center.
When they brought him in, not only did they convey information about his current status, but they told the story of Zelda.
“He came in with a cardiac arrest and had his dog pull him through—it’s amazing,” said Nagib Chalfoun, MD, an electrophysiologist who oversaw Tetzlaff’s care in Grand Rapids in collaboration with cardiologist Richard McNamara, MD.
The cardiology team confirmed that Tetzlaff’s trouble that day had started with ventricular tachycardia, a rapid heartbeat. Though his defibrillator tried to pace him back into a normal rhythm, his heart rate instead accelerated into ventricular fibrillation, a life-threatening arrythmia.
“That’s probably when he completely went out,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “And then he got shocked.”
Dr. Chalfoun suspected the arrythmia resulted from an electrical glitch surrounding scars from a past heart attack. But because he has coronary artery disease, the team needed to rule out the possibility he had active blockages, which they could open with cardiac catheterization.
To investigate the state of Tetzlaff’s arteries, the team took advantage of a relatively new diagnostic technology, cardiac MRI.
The test, which yields stunningly clear images, confirmed that Tetzlaff did indeed have significant heart damage from prior heart attacks, but these areas of scarring were old and wouldn’t respond to catheterization treatment.
“There was nothing to go in for and try to open up again because that tissue was already dead, already scarred up,” Dr. Chalfoun said.
The MRI results pointed doctors in the direction of medication rather than intervention. They put Tetzlaff on a daily antiarrhythmic drug, which works to keep the heart in a normal rhythm.
“It helps kind of cool down the heart and reduces the chance of him going into ventricular tachycardia again,” Dr. Chalfoun said.
‘A good dog story’
Once Tetzlaff stabilized, he was released to resume life as usual, with regular monitoring by a heart failure specialist.
But life as usual for Tetzlaff isn’t the same as life for most patients who have chronic heart disease.
A retired United States Air Force pilot, he has always embodied discipline and self-motivation.
For years, he ran three to six miles a day. After his heart bypass surgery, he traded in running for walking. After his first stroke, when he lost his sense of balance, he took up tennis to retrain his brain.
That was 20 years ago, and he’s shown up on the tennis court at least twice a week ever since.
“Neil has really owned his heart disease,” said David Klungle, PA, who works with the cardiology team and has gotten to know Tetzlaff in part because they’re both veterans who were stationed at the same base, though in different decades.
“He’s a fascinating person to interact with, just a neat guy,” Klungle said. “He keeps up on current events and modern technologies, flying—I could sit and talk to him for hours.”
On top of all that, Tetzlaff now has a great dog story to tell.
As Klungle put it, “It’s hard not to be a sucker for a good dog story.”