MISSISSIPPI STATE – “Don’t tell them you’re a Rebel,” Tommy Walker whispered to his son’s badly injured dog, Tayson, as they approached the entrance to Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
That was a remarkable statement from a loyal and supportive 1983 University of Mississippi pharmacy alumnus. Athletic competition between Ole Miss and Mississippi State can deeply divide families and friends into opposing camps, particularly in November, when the Egg Bowl rolls around. But a crisis, like the one the Walker family faced now, would unite the two camps of one of the most heated sports rivalries in the state.
Tommy eased his SUV into the parallel parking spot by the emergency door at the veterinary facility. It was twilight on the first Sunday in December of 2008. Normally, Tommy would be at home in Byram relaxing in his easy chair with his wife Robin as they watched TV and played tug-of-war with Tayson.
“Robin is a Mississippi College graduate, and she puts up well with the Ole Miss-State ribbing that goes on among family and friends we have,” Tommy said. “We’re lucky that we can separate the sports fanaticism from the true things in life that really matter. The same goes for many of my friends and family members who cheer for the other team.”
Tayson belongs to Preston Walker, the eldest of their three sons. Preston, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice/homeland security from Ole Miss in 2007. He now is a Marine stationed in Japan waiting deployment to active duty in Iraq. Preston and Tayson had been inseparable since his sophomore year at Ole Miss.
When Preston would stop for tacos in Oxford, he always had Tayson in tow. Tayson always charmed his way into a free taco. And of course, Tayson would curl up around Preston’s feet when the Walker family would come back after a home game to discuss how the Rebels played. Tayson also got along well with Preston’s girlfriend at Ole Miss, Carolyn Hill, and was quite accepting when the two got married after graduation.
Preston’s commissioning into the Marines meant he would be separated from Carolyn and Tayson while he went through basic training. Carolyn had entered physical therapy school at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Memphis and could not keep the dog because the apartment complex did not allow pets. Tommy and Robin decided that Tayson would come live with them temporarily.
“It was logical for us to keep Tayson,” Robin said. “Parents do what they can for their children. This certainly was no stretch on our part because Preston and Carolyn once rescued an abandoned dog thrown in a ditch and asked us to take her in. Sassy is now a part of our family, and Tayson got along fine with her and with Buddy, our other dog.”
The energetic 6-year-old Labrador mix adapted well to his new life out in the country. He had new playmates and plenty of fresh air and room to run on the property.
Although other houses in the neighborhood were within short walking distances, thick brush and woods bordering the Walker’s lot kept many wild creatures hidden from view. The three dogs often wandered into this thicket, but they always came running when Tommy or Robin would call.
Tayson possesses a wandering spirit and a quest for adventure, characteristics which are part of his Labrador heritage. Unfortunately, those two qualities led him down the wrong path that Sunday morning in 2008.
The Walkers had gone to church in Byram and left Tayson, Buddy and Sassy outside. As they eased their SUV up their winding driveway, the couple wondered why the dogs were not running up to greet them, as they always did. When Tommy shut off the ignition, his heart nearly stopped. Tayson lay motionless by the front steps, blood all over his body, the grass and the home. His back legs, belly and throat were covered with deep slashes, cuts and puncture wounds.
Tayson apparently had been in a fight and was barely alive. His companions were unharmed, but they were wary and quiet. The couple dashed madly inside to search for a blanket. Tommy put all his skills as a pharmacist to the test to save Tayson.
He grabbed a blanket and quickly wrapped Tayson up to keep him warm while Robin called the Emergency Animal Clinic in Jackson. The couple gently placed the dog on the passenger seat before Tommy slipped behind the wheel. Robin stayed at home with their youngest son, Matthew, to wait for news. She called her daughter-in-law, Carolyn, and then her middle son, Drew, to let them know what had happened.
“Tayson had meant so much to Preston, and the bond between them was one way of our staying close to Preston while he was away serving his country,” Robin said. “This was in the forefront of our thoughts that day.”
The emergency clinic encouraged Tommy to go back home while they assessed Tayson’s injuries. He left, dreading the conversation he might have to have with Preston. The Walkers were determined to do all they could to save Tayson’s life if the clinic offered any hope. After what seemed an eternity for the Walkers, the clinic asked Tommy to return.
“The veterinarian looked me in the eye and said that the staff had done all they could for our dog,” Tommy said. “Then, he said, ‘If you want to save this dog’s life, you need to take him to Mississippi State.’ I didn’t even flinch.”
The medical staff put Tayson in the passenger seat, attached his IV inside the door and wished Tommy good luck. The duo headed to Bulldog Country.
“The staff told me to keep Tayson awake and conscious by talking to him constantly,” Tommy said. “I talked nonstop to him for three hours, and every now and then, Tayson would look at me and roll his eyes. I also turned up the heater high as it would go, and I felt like I was sweating bullets by the time I got to MSU.”
One of Tommy’s good friends at Mississippi State University is Diana Eubanks, assistant clinical professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Eubanks, whose specialty is canine dentistry, met him in the reception area. While attendants wheeled Tayson into the trauma room, Eubanks assured him the medical staff would do all they could.
“Judging from the location and the extent of his wounds, we suspected Tayson was trying to get away from his attacker,” Eubanks said. “He had lost a significant amount of blood and was in considerable pain. Despite the severity of his wounds, Tayson was a calm, brave patient, and we knew in our hearts we had to save him.”
The effort was a great struggle. Tayson had a weak pulse, low blood pressure and a rapidly beating heart, all symptoms of hemodynamic shock. He also needed blood transfusions but had developed a condition that caused his blood to lose its clotting ability. This would complicate treatment.
“Animals that suffer traumatic injury or stress can develop this syndrome, which is life threatening,” said Dr. Kent Hoblet, dean of the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “Some of them cannot survive because their body cannot maintain an adequate supply of blood necessary to sustain life.”
Veterinary intern Ryan Taggart examined Tayson and assessed Tayson’s initial condition. The medical team administered oxygen and fluids, along with pain medication, to stabilize him and protect his kidneys. They monitored his heart rate and blood pressure to make sure he could sustain x-rays of his chest and abdomen. The team then flushed his wounds and treated him with antibiotics before admitting him to the intensive care unit.
“Most of the damage in bite cases like Tayson’s involves the crushing and shearing of tissue below the skin,” Taggart said. “Severe trauma like this can be life threatening, and we were concerned about whether Tayson would be able to overcome his injuries.”
With Tayson in good hands, Tommy felt a little more relieved driving back home. In the meantime, Carolyn had broken the news about Tayson to Preston when he called her. Later, when father and son were able to talk, Tommy told him all about the day, especially how the Mississippi State people embraced Tayson once he arrived at their door.
“Within 10 seconds, there were five people working on my dog,” Tommy said. “I told Preston that while recovery would be a long process, I felt Tayson had a good chance because of the MSU veterinary staff.”
Preston had some good news to share, too. He said he would be home for a week before shipping out to Iraq. He joked that his plans would have to be altered to make a few trips to Bulldog Country.
Tayson began the slow process of healing. Veterinary medical students assigned to intensive care often soothed the dog and even climbed into his cage when Tayson could not sleep because of the pain. They fed him prescribed soft food and chicken broth to speed his healing. The turning point in Tayson’s recovery came two weeks later when Preston walked through the doors of the veterinary college.
“Preston and I drove to MSU, and the staff brought Tayson into one of the holding rooms,” Tommy said. “I cannot describe the pure joy I felt seeing those two reunite. That visit did much to reassure Preston, and it also did much to speed Tayson’s recovery.”
Almost a year later, Tayson is back to his old self, although he does not venture outside as much as he once did. Preston has finished his tour in Iraq and is back in Okinawa awaiting orders for a second tour, this time aboard ship in the Pacific. While time has healed Tayson’s wounds, the Walkers have not forgotten the kindness bestowed upon them by the Mississippi State family.
“Ole Miss is good for some things, and Mississippi State is good for some things,” Tommy said. “I would not hesitate to tell anyone to take an injured animal to Mississippi State to get the best care if that is what’s needed.”
When the Rebels go to the “Dawgs,” they have good reason.
Patti Drapala/MSU Ag Communications