‘Jango bit down on Hunter’s leg and violently shook him like a rag doll. He’d ask, ‘Why would God let this happen?’: After terrifying dog attack, boy learns to thrive with prosthesis

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“My husband, Michael, and I always knew becoming parents would be one of the biggest highlights of our lives. For me, becoming a stay-at-home mom was what I considered and expected to be a dream come true. What we didn’t expect was a life-altering tragedy to happen to our oldest son, Hunter, when he was four years old.

On June 26th, 2010, I gave birth to Hunter, and our world was changed forever for the better. I couldn’t take my eyes off his perfectly round face and button nose. My sweet husband’s smile was filled with pure joy, and he radiated a brand-new type of unconditional love. Becoming a parent evokes flawless feelings of love and loyalty. Those feelings flooded our hearts when we welcomed Hunter into the world.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

Hunter grew to be an active, fun-loving kid. He had a deep and fierce love for his family and close friends, and there was always a wrestling match when it was time to say goodbye. He had an obsession with ocean animals, the megalodon and angler fish being his favorites, and you could often find him watching videos of sharks. He lived a joyful and carefree life, as all young children should. But all of that changed in an instant when something triggered our dog, Jango, causing him to attack our little boy.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

Jango bit down onto Hunter’s leg and violently shook him like a ragdoll, mangling his thin and fragile limb. Emergency responders were immediately called. When they arrived on the scene, they stabilized his injured leg, inserted an IV, and administered morphine for the pain. Hunter was then loaded onto the ambulance and rushed to the local airport where a helicopter waited to transport us to the nearest children’s hospital.

When the helicopter lifted off the ground, I did everything I could to take slow deep breaths as I attempted to take in my surreal surroundings. Hunter faced the opposite direction, propped up in such a way that I couldn’t see his face. He was quiet and conscious, but the morphine had put him in a semi-sedated state.

I stared out the small window and watched as the world raced by below. When I looked out over the horizon, I focused on the sun setting behind the narrow mountain range. Colors transformed from lighter shades of blue to vivid pinks and gentle hues of orange. Maybe it was a sign this day was soon coming to a close, just like the life we’d become accustomed to living. It all felt like a dream, but the loud pounding from the blades hitting the air reminded me this was all really happening.

The moment we touched down, the medical staff swarmed Hunter’s gurney and urgently wheeled him into a room that had curtains instead of walls. I nervously paced outside of the makeshift room and listened to them talk to one another in what seemed to be a foreign language. They swiftly but carefully prepared him for surgery, but before they could begin any official procedures, I needed to sign a consent form. A resident carrying a clipboard called me over and spat out some medical terms. My head spun as I tried to focus on his words, but all I heard was a muffled voice like the teacher in Charlie Brown movies.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

All I could think was, it’s only a dog bite, not some rare infectious disease. You’re going to fix him, and soon we will walk out of this hospital and get back to our lives.

As the resident neared the end of the consent form, I heard a word I recognized, one that will forever haunt me:

‘Amputation.’

Amputation? My son might lose his leg? I was shocked back into coherency and everything came to an eerie standstill.

My knees crumbled beneath me. A member of the hospital staff rushed forward and caught me by the arm and held me up.

‘I think you should sit down,’ she said, grabbing a chair and placing me in it.

With a trembling hand, I scribbled my name next to the ‘X’ and Hunter was rushed into surgery. My heart pounded while we sat in the waiting room and waited for it to be over.

The doctors did everything they could to save his leg, but despite their efforts, the limb was so badly mangled and amputation was the only option.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

In the days following the amputation, I cried more often than not as I tried to comprehend never seeing my sweet little boy’s left leg, foot, and little toes again. To add insult to injury, while Hunter was in the hospital, he was given heavy doses of antibiotics to keep his leg from getting infected. This resulted in bilateral moderate hearing loss and the need for hearing aids.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

Michael and I struggled to survive in the throes of heartache and grief as we also attempted to grasp the foreign world of disability and special needs. We mourned our ideal parenthood now that our lives were filled with physical therapy, audiology appointments, and we focused on advocating for medical care and devices, something we never thought would be part of our lives. The weight of the loss sat heavily on our shoulders as we said goodbye to not only the parenthood we had envisioned but also the childhood we pictured for our son.

Hunter’s recovery was painstakingly slow. He refused to walk, and his prosthetic leg became his enemy. Screams would fill our home whenever we attempted to help him put it on. We knew his prosthesis would help him get his life back so he could run, jump, and play again, but the acceptance phase of grief was beyond his reach as he clung to the questions that plagued his mind.

‘Can we go back to the hospital and get my leg? Is it in our backyard? Why would God let this happen to me?’ Hunter would ask.

How was I supposed to explain to my four-year-old that his leg was never going to come back and that God still loved him, but bad things happen? I would do my best to answer his questions, but I felt lost and, at times, inadequate to handle such a daunting recovery while supporting a child with special needs.

There were moments when I was on the verge of giving up. They came at the end of the long days filled with multiple failed attempts to get Hunter to walk or even take one step. Those days ended with me crying myself to sleep. Or the times when we did everything we could to get him to take off his hood instead of hiding his hearing aids. I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for him, and I desperately wanted him to know he was more than a prosthetic leg and hearing aids. I wanted him to see himself how I did: an amazing and capable little boy who was loved beyond what he could ever comprehend. A child whose life was not over, regardless of the challenges and changes that lay ahead.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

Despite the struggles, I tried my best to look for blessings because I wanted Hunter to know joy could be found amidst trials and that one could become better instead of bitter. If I wanted to be the best mother I could for him, encouraging his every step, wiping away his tears, cheering him on and even crying with him, I needed to make sure I was strong enough for the both of us.

I started to realize, more than ever, just how important it was to feel emotions and to work through grief. I don’t know why Hunter had to be taught that difficult lesson at a young age, but looking back, he has learned so much about processing his feelings and learning how to heal and become stronger. I believe what he has gone through has made him who he is today and we wouldn’t change who he has become. The lessons he has learned can only be gained through experience. That makes me grateful for our trials and heartache.

A turning point in Hunter’s recovery happened eight months after his amputation. We attended a ‘disAbilites Expo’ at a nearby university. Everywhere we looked, there were different sports for the participants to try: kayaking in the pool, sled hockey, rock-climbing, and wheelchair basketball, to name a few. We happily explored the expo while Hunter sat in his stroller and quietly observed those around him. Before we left, we made our way down to the soccer fields where children were running around and kicking soccer balls. At first, Hunter sat idly by, but after a few minutes of watching, he gathered enough courage to abandon his spot on the sidelines. He hopped out of the stroller, hobbled over to a ball, firmly planted his prosthesis on the ground, lifted his sound leg, and kicked the ball. I couldn’t believe it! For the first time ever, he fully bore weight on his prosthesis. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. I followed him around the field, grinning from ear to ear. It was like watching an awkward baby deer discovering how to walk for the first time. It was absolutely glorious.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

In the years to follow, I sought out organizations that would provide resources for all of us. To name a few, Challenged Athletes Foundation has given Hunter grants to participate in sports such as swimming, gymnastics, and golf, and he’s learned how to surf at the clinics they provide. Angel City Sports has given me the opportunity to be in the company of some of the greatest advocates I will ever meet and is shedding a bright light on adaptive sports. No Barriers USA has been another influential community that has taught me to live a life with no barriers. I often wear their shirt saying, ‘What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.’ And, Camp No Limits connected us with families all across the country, providing us with a camaraderie we wouldn’t have found if we never joined the limb loss community. These new relationships have been added to the ever-growing list of blessings we have counted ever since the accident. They have been shoulders to cry on, listening ears, and have lifted us up in times of need.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

There are so many organizations and foundations out there that want to help and provide resources. It might take some searching, but never be afraid to reach out and connect with people who want to make a difference in your life.

Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler
Courtesy of Rosalie Mastaler

Through these past years, Hunter has taught our family a hard but vital lesson: sometimes when you fall, you don’t always get up right away, and that is okay. The important part is getting up and trying again, and again, and that has taken more strength and courage than I have ever had. We have all had our moments when we fell into dark times and have experienced deep sorrows, but because of those heartaches, our joy has been magnified. We are more grateful for the smaller blessings, and we are able to better recognize we were meant to choose happiness in this life. And that’s what we will continue to do: walk hand-in-hand as a family, support and lift each other up, and never cease to find joy.”

Courtesy of Jenolyn Christensen
Courtesy of Jenolyn Christensen
Courtesy of Jenolyn Christensen

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rosalie Mastaler from Georgetown, TX. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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