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Heroic measures save heroic dog

Brutis kept a deadly snake from his master and her grandchildren, but needed some quick help in turn to keep from dying from the bite.

Published September 26, 2003

HUDSON - On the swings under the sycamore tree, just beyond the horse pasture, 3-year-old Angelique kicked her legs into the sky. Lucca, her younger brother, tried to keep up.

It was Saturday afternoon. Grandma and grandpa unpacked a miniature badminton and horseshoes set. The kids beamed with anticipation.

Then, Fran Oreto heard a commotion behind her. She spun around. Just 5 feet from the kids stood her golden retriever Brutis, a snake in its mouth.

"If he hadn't gotten the snake, it could have been the kids. It could have been me," Oreto said.

The snake was coiling, trying to strike Brutis.

"Release it!" Oreto screamed.

Her husband, Mark, grabbed the 6-inch-long snake, ran inside and threw it in the freezer. Fran rifled through a kitchen drawer until she found the snake chart.

She stopped on one with a black head and red and yellow bands.

It was, to her horror, a coral snake, one of the most world's most deadly.

Brutis followed her inside, as he always does. But when the dog looked up at her, his eyes were glazed. And then the 107-pound dog just lay down.

Oreto rushed Brutis to her Isuzu Rodeo, putting his limp body in the front seat. She was in a race against time.

The SUV sped down the rutted, unpaved road from her home in rural northwest Pasco County. Brutis had trouble breathing; he vomited and defecated. With one arm on the wheel, Oreto, crying, tried to keep his head up.

When they reached Animal Emergency of Pasco, vets prepared 51-year-old Oreto for the worst, saying they could give Brutis something to relax him but there was little else that could be done.

A vet handed her a phone book and a cordless phone. If she could find some antivenin, perhaps Brutis could be saved. "I dialed all the local hospitals," Oreto said. "I started praying and calling. Praying and calling."

The first six hospitals could not help. Oreto said a final prayer and called the seventh. Registered nurse Gene Piche was on the other line at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital in New Port Richey.

"I'm in desperate search for antivenin for coral snakes," Oreto said. "If you have any vials that are close to expiration, I will buy them from you."

Piche, an animal lover, called the pharmacist and asked how many vials he had. Coral snake antivenin is hard to come by and used almost exclusively for humans. The hospital has to maintain a stock of five vials. Seven were available, two of which were set to expire.

"They've got it. They've got it," Oreto shouted to her friend, Molly Jamison, who took off for the hospital.

Brutis was fading. It was about 6 p.m. Saturday, three hours after the snakebite. Neurotoxins were spreading through the 6-year-old dog's body. His red blood cell count was falling.

Jamison returned a half hour later with the antivenin. The vets had hooked Brutis to a heart monitor and pumped him full of steroids to stabilize him. Little by little they injected the antivenin.

When the process was over, Oreto sat on floor with Brutis. "I didn't want him to think he was being punished or abandoned," she said.

She left at 11:30 that night. Brutis appeared stable.

An hour and 15 minutes later, the phone woke Oreto. The vets told her that Brutis' condition had worsened. They would need a second vial of antivenin. Oreto raced back to the hospital.

Vets again administered the antivenin, but Brutis was not faring well. His red blood cell count dropped to 24, well below the healthy range of 35 and 42. If not enough oxygen was reaching the tissue, shock could set in, followed by death.

Later Sunday, vets told Oreto that Brutis' red blood cell count had dipped to 20. Now he needed a blood transfusion. Oreto agreed to pay the $330.

On Monday, Oreto drove Brutis to Florida Veterinary Specialists in Tampa. Dr. Neil Shaw was amazed that Oreto had secured antivenin. "It's next to impossible to get," he said.

Oreto visited Brutis on Tuesday, bringing him French-style hamburger rolls from Publix, his favorite brand. She came back the next day with an oven-roasted lemon pepper chicken.

Then she drove Brutis home.

On Thursday, he appeared healthy. He still walks slowly and tires easily. He will have to make daily visits to the vet for blood tests until his red blood cell count is steady. His medical bill is $2,500, not including the antivenin. Oreto was told it goes for $900 a vial.

Vets also told her neurological damage might show up in Brutis in a few years.

"But you never know," Oreto said, "he could just be the miracle puppy."

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