At the end of another crazy day in our Level 1 Trauma Center the call went out. Our volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) team had been deployed by a local law enforcement agency. It was an “Amber Alert”: a 13-year-old girl, last seen with an unknown man, had been missing for more than 24 hours in the bitter cold of a January winter.
As an SAR team composed of a trauma clinical nurse specialist, a trauma surgeon, nursing faculty, an engineer, fire and rescue personnel, veterinary and other community members, we had trained countless hours for this moment.
When the team arrived on scene, the cold deepened with the setting sun and harsh wind. The elements filled our minds and hearts with urgency for the young girl last seen in a pink windbreaker. Snow covered much of the ground and reflected a waxing moon, providing strength to the glow of our headlamps. The dogs knew they had an important task at hand and stood tense in their reflective gear, ready to work.
“Go find!” The dogs took off.
Teams to the east moved through the pitch black of the thicket. This is slow and painful work but must be meticulous because dense vegetation is always a potential setting for foul play. Two hours into the search, our teams to the west reported to base, “Dogs in scent, moving subject.” Then from Incident Command, “Return to base, subject recovered, safe.”
The girl and an adult had been flushed from the woods by our canines, where they had sought shelter when a neighbor identified the missing child. Thankfulness set in as information emerged that the child was found with an internet predator that had traveled from out of state to meet her: A life saved.
Partnership between handler and dog
The partnership between SAR handlers and their canines is often described as a dance. A deep bond is formed as the handler learns to read the unique cues of his or her dog. The canine, with an olfactory capacity millions of times more powerful than that of a human, can segregate individual scents, likened to identifying single strokes of a brush on canvas.
Handlers study land navigation, scent theory, search strategy and canine behavior. The dogs undergo advanced obedience, agility, and urban, disaster, and wilderness training. “Air-scent “canines search for the living, whereas cadaver canines give voice to those who are gone, providing closure to families by finding human remains.
My team, the Virginia Canine Response Team, grew out of a group of colleagues and friends who share a love of dogs and the outdoors. Our interests and expertise in trauma care logically evolved into an opportunity for a special kind of outreach to the community. Our motto, “So others can live,” guides our mission.
We provide southwest Virginia with a SAR team. In past, not having this support meant wasted precious hours before northern or central Virginia canine teams could deploy to our area. Since achieving National Certification Council of Professional Canines recognition, the team has become a certified First Responder Unit and provides support for federal disaster work, including recent SAR support for the Arkansas and Nashville floods.
Additional information on canine SAR can be found on our website at http://www.virginiak9response.com.
Our hope is that our story reminds each of us to set our sights high. Personal strength, growth, and joy come from combining what you love with who you are. Never underestimate what you do or the opportunities you have in your life to make a difference in the lives of others. Even everyday passions, like spending time with man’s best friend, when combined with the special skills of the professional nurse, can reveal new and meaningful ways to care.
Ellen M. Harvey, MN, RN, CCRN, CNS, is a Trauma Nurse Specialist, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, Roanoke, Virginia.
From our readers gives nurses the opportunity to share experiences that would be helpful to their nurse colleagues. Because of this format, the stories have been minimally edited. If you would like to submit an article for From our readers, click here.