All Houston police officers are trained to save lives. This includes every man and woman on this mighty force – and lest anyone forgets – those specially commissioned K9 officers.
The story of what happened to Nate the HPD K9 officer on Saturday, Jan. 22 proves this high training level with little doubt.
The Stabbing Event
No one tells the story better than Nate’s handler, Officer Paul Foster, one of the Houston officers that a fleeing carjacker foolishly thought he could outrun on that day in the Heights.
Just after 8 a.m. the suspect, who later proved to be Ryan Mitchell Smith, 26, was sprinting for cover near Yale and the Katy Freeway. He didn’t appear to be armed. He was fleeing from his attempted carjacking.
Officers Foster and Nate were two in a team of officers wearing the blue who were hot on Smith’s fresh trail. This part of the Heights features detached garages, high wooden fences and back alleyways. The word Foster got from Dispatch was that the suspect wasn’t carrying a deadly weapon.
Nate soon learned different.
Smith took quick refuge behind one of those detached garages in an alley, drew a butcher knife and prepared to attack the first officer – human or K9 – to come around the corner and enter his clear field of vision. And within the range of the knife that appeared to have come from the knife block from someone’s kitchen.
“When he pops out of the corner, the officer was eight feet from him,” Foster recalled. “If Nate wasn’t there to do his job and the officer pursued the suspect down the alley, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have used that knife on the officer.”
As we know from subsequent events, Smith bonded out on charges of attempted robbery and assault of a K9 officer, only to proceed to kill his own father. He was captured in Waller County and now also faces murder charges. Hopefully, he won’t get out on another bond as one might expect in Harris County.
“If he killed his father,” Foster remarked, “do you think he would kill an officer?
“Nate really is a hero and critical to the work we do on the streets every day. This (chasing a suspect) is not his primary job. His primary job is to keep (human) officers safe, to enable us to go home every night to our families.”
This story of effective training and the ability to do a dangerous job under pressure contains other key factors and talking points, not the least of which is: What happened to the wounded K9?
When Foster reached the suspect’s hiding place he instantly heard a yelp from his partner and pointed his pistol at Smith, caught in the middle “of holding the knife like a coffee cup.”
“In my opinion,” Nate’s partner said, “he was raising the knife above his head – he was going to make a second strike.”
The Training Factors
At least two other officers were present to handcuff Smith and take him into custody.
This left Foster to deal with Nate, who was already soaking in his own blood. Once again, training received by HPD officers saved an officer’s life – a K9 officer.
Foster tells us what happened next.
“Nate was stabbed in the chest, a laceration to the right side of his chest next to his leg. It was the largest kitchen knife in your knife block. It went nine inches into his chest.”
“When you’re providing medical care to persons, they are not fighting you. Most people don’t have hair covering their entire body. Providing care to an animal in pain and experiencing serious blood loss is a little more difficult. The training we received put me in the mindset of being able to save his life.”
Let’s talk about HPD training at this point in Nate’s story.
Long-time HPD K9 officer trainer, Kristin Uhlin, was a prime mover in making sure the department’s K9 handlers underwent what is termed the “K9 tactical emergency casualty care course.” The HPD works with Memorial Hermann and Life Flight officials, who sponsor the training course.
“We taught all the handlers in HPD and throughout the state of Texas,” Uhlin recounted. “It’s rewarding to see that our training worked. If it wasn’t for Paul packing the wound the dog would have bled out.”
Yes. And please get the picture that Nate was not the only well-trained officer at the stabbing scene – so was his partner, the human being.
The innovative training program uses simulated dogs for CPR training for handlers, who also learn to check pulses and “feel for gunshot wounds or knife wounds.”
Uhlin said, “It’s a very satisfying thing to see that our people do what they are supposed to do. I’m thrilled that Paul was actually able to do something to save his dog’s life.”
So far, HPD and Memorial Hermann has taken the training program not only throughout the state of Texas but has plans to go nationwide. Uhlin said the course was planned or had been taught to PDs in Daytona Beach, Florida and Reno, California. That’s only the beginning, she said.
Now let’s get back to more details from Officer Foster and his story of what happened to the K9 with the serious stab wound.
“Nate had three to five arteries on his rib cage that were completely lacerated,” Foster recalled. “I could feel the warmth of the blood. I knew the arteries were damaged and he was going to bleed out.
“This was what, for me, was a panic.”
(Officer Foster used this description but his actions tell a different story – one of cool under pressure).
‘He was going to die’
“I gave commands to the suspect, and he immediately tossed the knife. I was able to yell for the officers with me. The suspect had his hands clearly above his head. He was complying.”
They took control of Smith as Foster treated his partner.
“He was going to die in another three to five minutes,” the human officer said.
Foster took the 75-pound Nate into his already blood-covered arms and quickly toted him 40 years to his shop. “There was so much blood,” he said, “I actually slipped on it and hit my head against the car.
“Nate was still coherent. Blood was everywhere but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. I found that it was his chest. In the back of the car, I knew I had what I needed to slow down the bleeding enough to get him to the hospital, which was only four or five minutes away.”
Foster was trained to keep handy a small medical kit with cloth balls and tourniquets. He and other handlers often use “supplies some people had donated over the years.”
He ripped bandages with his teeth and stuffed enough gauze into Nate’s chest to stop the bleeding.
The clock was ticking fast! Was Nate’s life quickly ticking away? Life Flight is always available for every HPD officer, including its K9s.
“He didn’t call Life Flight,” Uhlin explained. “The hospital was right down the street. It was load the dog and go!
“Between the time Nate was stabbed and taken to the vet was seven minutes – two minutes to treat the wound and five to get to the vet.”
From Yale and the Heights, the vet was just a few exits west on the Katy Freeway to the Campbell exit and Vergi, a 24-hour emergency critical care unit for animals, long-recognized as the best facility of its kind in the Greater Houston area.
Vergi’s people knew Nate and Foster were on their way, Foster using his lights and siren but making a wrong turn that required him to turn the wrong way on the service road to get to the hospital in the same parking lot as Goode Company Barbecue and Carter’s Country.
Everyone present at Vergi dropped what they were doing to give Nate their undivided and highly professional attention. This always has been the go-to treatment center for HPD K9s for regular check-ups and for treatment for injuries in the line of duty. Uhlin actually refers to Vergi as “the city vet.”
“The city vet said if it wasn’t for Paul packing the wound the dog would have bled out,” she said.
Foster said, “The moment I knew he was going to make it was when they pulled out that packing. It was like a water hose just went off. I knew the bandage worked and did its job. The training I took helped. If I had not had it, who knows what the outcome would have been.”
Getting Back on Duty
He and Uhlin have nothing but the highest praise for Vergi.
“Those guys and girls there were absolutely awesome,” Foster said. “They were able to clamp large arteries. Nate was still alert on the table. In fact, he wagged his tail for them. He was droopy but still alert. I was able to talk to him before they put him out.”
Dr. Stephen T. Pittenger, the surgeon, spent more than an hour with Nate on the operating table.
Foster was especially impressed that Vergi chief of staff, Dr. Michael Seely and his assistants “used their own personal home dogs to give Nate blood and plasma. That’s something I never would have thought would happen.”
Nate is home with Foster and his family. It might take a month or so, but the doctors believe Nate will be back on patrol doing what, ahem, he’s trained to do.