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March 17, 2022

The Story of Phoenix and Natalia

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Written by: Zach
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On February 10th, 2012, we rescued 4 puppies that had 3rd degree burns over 65% of their bodies. Their appearance was shocking and their condition was grave. I have seen (and smelled) a lot in my rescue career, and so had our Veterinary staff, but none of us had experienced anything this horrific. These were the worst, most painful injuries that we had ever seen and to make matters worse, we could not afford to give them the care they needed (probably no rescue could) if ample care even existed.

We were dismayed, extremely emotional, and our hope that they would survive was miniscule—and reasonably so. Less than a week later, however, I found myself in a state-of-the-art Veterinary Hospital, staring across a surgery table at Dr. A. Richard Grossman (the world’s foremost expert in burn care) as he operated on our girls free of charge.

In that short span we had also attracted an array of publicity and media attention that captivated a world-wide audience. That week alone we accepted donations from over 500 people in 13 countries and nearly every state in the union. Up to 16,000 people were following our girls on our Facebook page to watch the miracle unfold. I could almost feel the world smile as I clicked the “post” button after writing an encouraging update. While our girls fought for their lives, so did we and so did a battalion of strangers.

This is a story of survival and hope; of what happens when you combine perseverance, expert care, compassion, a world of support, and the tenacity of our little puppy girls.

A few months back, a family (Jerry, Margie, kids and Grandpa) in California City had taken in a couple of strays from the desert. California City and the surrounding desert is a notorious dumping ground for dogs. Packs of abandoned, vagrant, and unwanted dogs roam free and a lucky few are rescued or taken in by families in the area. Most of Cal City’s strays end up at the Animal Shelter and are euthanized (the kill rate is above 75%).

These two strays were pregnant and soon gave birth to litters within days of each other. Caring for so many puppies is a Herculean task, but they had figured out a pretty good system. They had an out-building and a kennel where the moms and puppies would be protected, safe and comfortable. It gets cold in the desert at night (often below freezing) and they worried about the pups getting too cold, so they brought out a heat lamp to make them more comfortable. I, personally, have used space heaters to keep puppies warm and didn’t think much about it but in their case it proved to be disastrous. Somehow, the lamp was knocked over and the kennel caught fire.

Everything was engulfed within seconds as they tried to knock down the blaze. The pups huddled together as a unit, with their backs to the flames. Three pups escaped without injury but 4 died and 5 others were severely burned. Thinking on his feet, Jerry took Grandpa’s oxygen system (which he uses for emphysema) and administered much needed oxygen to the surviving pups—this action saved their lives.

Jerry and Margie took the surviving pups to a Pet Clinic for treatment where one more pup succumbed to his injuries. The vet treated them as best he could and sent them home with medication and IV’s. Unfortunately, burns are difficult to diagnose and treat because they do not appear very bad at first. After being sent home, blisters that were the size of dimes began to spread and cover their entire back and sides. The injuries continued to metastasize and the situation became dire. The pups were still eating and drinking but their skin was starting to separate from their bodies. They reached out to many organizations but were turned down because they lived in Kern County and not Los Angeles County.

I received a call from Jerry a full week after the accident and we met the next day at the Vet in Tehachapi. Jerry and Margie were there when I pulled into the Vet and the pups were in a crate outside of the vehicle. As I approached Jerry and Margie’s vehicle, the stench hit me- it was the overpowering scent of pure death (and we were outdoors). I could tell that Jerry and Margie hadn’t slept in days and the expression of anguish on their faces looked like they had been through the bombing of Dresden.


We have treated burn victims before. Oscar (a current Marley’s Mutts) is a survivor of the Canyon Fire, but nothing could have prepared me for these puppies. The four surviving girls were huddled together, as one, and their skin hung on them like loose-fitting clothes. Entire areas of muscle were exposed and scorching on their backs reached the bone. Despite all of the pain they were in, the pups still felt the primal need to clean each other up and care for one another. Here they were, with nearly all of their skin detaching from the muscle, but still felt the need to police each other up and comfort one another—awe-inspiring.

The staff at the Tehachapi Vet Hospital quickly took control and we were immediately debriefed by Dr. Komin. Dr. Komin gathered us in an exam room and we formed a circle around the pups. My eyes danced around to each person in that room wondering if they were thinking the same thing I was—how are these pups still alive?
Both Kims, Stormy, Dr. Komin and the rest of the staff went to work on the pups and we congregated in the parking lot. We vowed that we would do everything in our power to give these pups a fighting chance. We all hugged and cried. That moment marked the forging of a wonderful relationship that has endured and prospered throughout this experience. They felt helpless and responsible and we were going to help them forget about that. That family bound together for nearly a week of sleepless nights. They dropped work, school and all other obligations to care for these pups. They watched them 24 hours a day to prevent the pups from bothering with each other and with nearly no resources kept the pups alive. They did an amazing job and should be proud of themselves.

We quickly realized that the Tehachapi Veterinary Hospital would be a temporary stay for our girls. They needed state-of-the-art technology and specialized care that could only be found in “the city.. I had asked Dr. Anderson (of Tehachapi Vet) if there was anything that WE could do to help them, considering how hard they were fighting and how helpless we felt. He said “short of a hyperbaric chamber, no, not really.” So naturally, we set out to find a hyperbaric chamber. That night, I began a whirlwind, Google-search session with the intent of learning everything I could about burns, treatments and available facilities. My search was promising while at the same time disheartening. I learned that it is virtually impossible for animals (or people) to survive burns of this degree and size. In addition, complications were numerous and staving infection was often unmanageable. However, a hyperbaric chamber, which uses pressurized oxygen to help heal the body from the inside out as well as the outside in, could provide inestimable gains and might be our key to survival.

I made calls to every hyperbaric manufacturer, retailer and proprietor that I could find. They were too expensive to rent or buy and several of them did not allow for the treatment of animals. We tried veterinary schools and hospitals and continued to strike out, until finally I called a place in Thousand Oaks with a very unassuming name—Pet Emergency Clinics and Specialty Hospital. It was about 11:30 pm when I made the call and heard music to my ears -“Yeah, we’ve got a hyperbaric chamber. As a matter of fact, we’ve got two.” “Ok,” I said “We’ll see you soon.”

The next day we went to check on our girls and ready them for transport. Infection had clearly taken hold of the tan pup; she was in too much pain and her chance of survival was virtually nil. We made the decision, along with our doctors, to put her to sleep. It was a tough call, but it was the right move. The veterinary staff had worked very hard to keep our girl in less pain and stable. They cut away as much dead tissue as they could and gave each of the girls a gentle hydro treatment to disinfect and sooth. Just before we disembarked, each pup was given an ample amount of pain medication to help them endure the long drive (over 3 hours). We arrived at the Pet Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Thousand Oaks at about 6 pm. The staff was waiting for us and began to treat the three remaining pups with all that they had. They let us know that this was going to be very expensive and that their future was very uncertain. We put down a deposit and left our girls in the very capable hands.

At this point it was going to come down to dollars and cents and their will to survive. Would the girls be able to hold on and if so could we raise enough money to care properly for them? If we couldn’t raise the money, what would we do? Could we find a veterinary school that would treat them free of charge or at an extreme discount? We ran through and researched every possible option. Really, it was in God’s hands at that point.
We had set up a “Chip In” account the day after we rescued our girls to help raise money for their care. We hadn’t used Chip In before and we unsure of what to expect. Our goal was to circulate their story as best we could and hope that their plight would be recognized by folks and would “catch fire.” Boy, were we successful! Within a few days, we had raised close to $5,000 from donations that had come in from literally all over the world. Donation notifications were sent directly to my email which made my phone vibrate. During the drive home from Thousand Oaks, my phone was literally dancing in my pocket!

The next morning, Dr. Werner from Pet Emergency said that Pele, one of the black and white pit bulls, was simply too badly injured and that the smart, moral and practical decision was to put her to sleep—so we made the call. Were we going to lose them all? That evening, I received a call from the hospital that the girls’ medical care was indeed going to be more than we could afford. I fought the urge to panic. We weren’t going to give up but I had certainly thrown my hands in the air and shed a few tears. We pulled together, all of us, and kept the faith that this endeavor, this amazing story, could not fail and that the human element (with God’s oversight) would figure out a way to see this to fruition.

While we were doing our best to find a Plan B, the Doctors in Thousand Oaks were pulling as many strings as they could. They wanted to give our girls the best treatment possible but were unfamiliar with burns this severe. They put in a call to the Grossman Burn Center hoping to gain some direction and insight and, within a few hours, all of our prayers were answered.


Dr. A Richard Grossman, founder of the Grossman Burn Centers and pioneering burn treatment expert, called back and offered his services personally! Can you believe it? There is nobody on this planet better qualified to treat our girls’ burns. That’s like having Albert Einstein come to your house to help you on your science project. What an unbelievable turn of events. Within a few hours Dr. Grossman was at the Pet Emergency hospital rendering care to our girls. Dr. G performed several procedures and began to educate the staff at Pet Emergency on treatment methods and techniques. He brought his magical doctor bag full of wraps and ointment and instruments that would help put our girls back together.

After his initial assessment and treatment, Dr. Grossman (with the backing of West Hills Hospital) agreed to treat our girls free of charge and for as long as they would need his assistance. The Board of Directors that operates the Pet Emergency Hospital conferred and came back with the decision that they too would treat the pups without any cost to us other than the down payment of $3,000. What an unbelievable turn of events—one after the other and then again! The surviving girls have fought so hard to stay alive and we were able to meet that intensity, that will, with our own show of effort and gumption. The impossible was now conceivable but it would require weeks of tactical treatment by our team, more resolve from our girls who surely were running on empty and lots of luck. We had to be running out of miracles. The girls had certainly earned the right to be named so we inaugurated them into this world as Natalia and Phoenix. Natalia was named after one of the amazing, beautiful, talented vet techs at the Hospital and Phoenix, well, her name is self-explanatory.

For the next month, we meditated, thought hard, prayed, and focused our energy on Natalia and Phoenix. By “we” I mean tens of thousands of us! The story of our little survivors was being broadcast all over the world. Los Angeles news stations reported live from the hospital, newspapers and online periodicals picked up the story. An army of well-wishers and dog-lovers spiritually focused themselves on Natalia and Phoenix. We had 16,000 people following the story at any given moment on Facebook. It was a beautiful display of generosity, compassion and love. Dr. Grossman continued to visit/treat the girls several times a week and we have been making the trek as well to help keep you all in the loop. The progress of Natalia and Phoenix has been mind boggling! It is hard to comprehend that I am looking at the same two dogs—and not the same two dogs mangled and handicapped, but healthy and vigorous! When I first looked at them, I could not believe that they were alive-that were even moving. And now when I look at them I think to myself, how can anything be more alive than these two girls?


There have been times in my life when I doubted the power of prayer but I can assure you, I never will again. Our girls survived because of their indomitable spirit, first class care, and the positive energy and love sent their way by a massive assemblage of awesome people. It has been five weeks now and our girls could not be doing better. Furthermore, it has been decided that they will enter into the world by giving back and being of service. Upon release from the Pet Emergency Hospital (sometime next month) both Natty and Phe Phe will enter in to therapy training with the goal of helping other burn victims get through their sufferings with a smile. Natalia and Phoenix will someday grace the halls of the 4th floor of the West Hills Hospital, where the Grossman Burn center is located and where pediatric burn patients go to have their dreams put back together.

If you are crying while reading this, its okay, and you should—I am.

Some people will ask if such an impressive effort is worth it … if all of the time and resources brought to bear makes sense … and even if it is ethically sound. I believe that our girls have already paid tremendous dividends in the lessons that they have taught us: their will to survive and their love of life and each other. Additionally, I believe that their future as therapy dogs will provide incalculable benefits to people in the most severe of situations. With their story and triumph, they will bring happiness and hope amid inestimable pain and sadness. They have and will continue to provide such light and for that I believe the unequivocal answer is ”YES.”

I just can’t imagine a more perfect end to such a catastrophic, powerful sequence of events. Life can be ugly, chaotic and cruel—sometimes to the point of hopelessness. But then a power greater than ourselves opens up the world and gives us a glimpse of what is possible. I believe that this is one of those rare occasions.

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts!

Zach Skow


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5 Comments


  1. That was so beautifully written, I think I cried through the whole thing. Everyone involved with this has done such an amazing thing and I couldn’t be more honored to have heard about this story and helped in the little ways I could. Those little girls have such a wonderful life ahead of them and I can’t wait to continue hearing the good that they will do as therapy dogs.
    Continuing to pray for you and all at Marley’s Mutts,
    Sydney


  2. I have also followed this incredible and beautiful story from the very beginning.

    I remember praying to God how I needed a miracle in my life. Now I have one.
    The best Miracle I could ever hope for.

    My Granddaughter Sydney Major has been by my side during this entire ordeal. We have prayed and cried together. Our prayers have been answered and you can not ask for more than that. Thank you Marley’s mutts and Dr. Grossman. All the nurses and vet tech and doctors at the animals hospital, you are such wonderful and loved people. Those of us on the sidelines want you to know how much you are loved and appreciated.
    Lois


  3. Toni Ezell

    What a great story!!! How do I find them on FB?


  4. Cindy Light

    A very well written, powerful article Zach. I appreciated the chance to learn more about the family that took in the pregnant, abandoned pups, with the best of intentions too. My heart, as it always did, still goes out them as well. ~As for the two pups that were able to hang on, my gosh, what can I say? This article brings tears to my eyes all over again, taking me back to the beginning of their story. A story that could so easily have turned into a tragic ending, instead as you say, took a turn for the miraculous, and ‘then a power greater than ourselves opens up the world and gives us a glimpse of what is possible.’. What a beautiful outcome. What a perfect example of faith, love & prayer, changing the path into something wonderful. ~God Bless all of you for your loving efforts. ~Cindy Light


  5. Judy Stevens

    Tom, here is the Facebook link for Marley’s Mutts.

    http://www.facebook.com/MarleysMuttsDogRescue?ref=ts

    The girls don’t have their own FB page.



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