EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The dog lay on the table struggling to breathe in the throes of a severe heat stroke. Pako, 96th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, thrashed around wildly. His vital signs were fading fast. At one point, his pulse vanished. Pako’s heart stopped.
This was the scene of the emergency Army Sgt. Kelli Helfinstine and the base veterinary clinic personnel faced one hot day in June 2017.
“This was the most severe heat injury I have encountered,” said Helfinstine, who recently received an Air Force Achievement Medal for her valiant efforts to save Pako’s life. “I just thought, this animal needs oxygen, we need to get him oxygen.”
Pako and his handler, Staff Sgt. Radames Leon, were participating in a hostile suspect exercise. The five-and-a-half-year-old K-9 searched but was unable to find his target. He pressed on, unwilling to give up the hunt. His body temperature began to rise at an uncontrollable rate.
Pako showed no signs of heat injury but did appear overly exerted, according to Tech. Sgt. Bryan Bowermaster, Eglin AFB’s kennel master. Leon took the dog’s temperature, which read 105, the average working temperature for the Belgian Malinoise’s breed.
“These military working breeds are very high drive and will work themselves to death if allowed,” said Helfinstine. “Heat injury is very serious and can progress quickly. He was probably fine initially but continued to get hotter.”
The training was canceled and the MWD team returned to the kennel. It was then that Pako showed clear signs of distress and heat stroke.
He was immediately rushed to the veterinary clinic. The technicians provided oxygen and tried to cool Pako down while waiting for the veterinarian, Capt. Ashley Hydrick, to arrive. At this point, Pako was in severe respiratory distress and approaching cardiac arrest.
In the midst of the breathing and cooling procedures, Pako’s heart stopped beating.
“I will never forget the moment I saw Pako’s life slip away,” said Bowermaster, a MWD handler for seven years. “His pupils dilated to a point where you could no longer see the brown of his eyes.”
For approximately 10 minutes, Hydrick and others performed chest compressions, while Helfinstine administered the oxygen ventilation. Then, unexpectedly, Pako’s pulse returned.
“I was so relieved when he stabilized,” said Helfinstine, a 10-year vet tech. “I felt like I could finally breathe, too. I could tell everyone was relieved. I continued to monitor his vitals and ensured he was getting the oxygen he needed.”
Pako had not only defied the almost insurmountable odds of a dog surviving a heat stroke, but he also recovered via CPR, another extremely rare feat, according to Helfinstine.
When he stabilized, Pako was sent to the emergency clinic in Pensacola, Florida, for his follow-on care. When a large enough vehicle was coordinated, the handlers escorted their partner to the clinic. Hydrick and Helfinstine accompanied their patient on his journey providing fluids and monitoring his progress. The mutual opinions of the technicians and handlers was that Pako probably would not make it through the night.
Staff Sgt. Shane Massie, Pako’s first handler and now Eglin AFB’s MWD trainer, stayed with the dog that night in intensive care.
Pako survived the night. The following day he was removed from the ICU and was up and about although a little wobbly, according to Bowermaster.
“That dog’s spirit kept him alive, kept him going,” said Bowermaster.
Pako spent three days recovering in Pensacola. Because he is a military asset, an Airman had to be with him at all times.
For Leon, Massie and the other MWD handlers even if they weren’t directed to stay, they all said they’d have been there for him regardless.
“There’s a personal relationship that forms between us and these dogs,” said Leon, who’s been Pako’s handler for approximately a year now. “We can’t help but create a bond, a partnership, with them.”
Upon returning to Eglin Air Force Base, Pako went into an eight-week rehabilitation program that slowly reintegrated him into his training regime. He is now playfully referred to around the kennel as the “zombie dog.”
“Pako is now back and better than ever,” said Bowermaster. “He works just as hard now as he did before his injury.”
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