On the day that Jay Mitchell learned he would lose part of his feet to frostbite, his loyal companion rushed into a Minneapolis hospital to ease his pain.
It was a brief moment in a story that has touched hearts around the country and inspired strangers to give.
Sitting in a wheelchair, his legs covered by a gray fleece blanket, Mitchell turned as a door opened and his “best friend” barreled into a conference room at HCMC in Minneapolis.
“Oh my gosh. Hello buddy,” Mitchell said, overwhelmed by the surprise visit.
As television and news cameras captured the reunion, Mitchell reached to greet Hero, his 10-year-old Labrador-golden retriever. It was a moment of unrestrained joy as Hero jumped up, nuzzling nose-to-nose and licking Mitchell’s face.
“[He’s] all I have in the world right now,” Mitchell said. “I love you, buddy. … This is who I gave up my feet for.”
Mitchell, a former handyman, lost the lease on his house in Randall, Minn., weeks after his wife died of cancer in December. Unable to find housing that would also accommodate his dog, he and Hero moved into the front seat of his beat-up pickup truck in early January. He didn’t realize until too late that subzero temperatures had taken a toll and severe frostbite had set in. He was rushed to HCMC’s burn unit Jan. 25.
“I fought forest fires for 10 years out West. I know the nature of fire but not of cold,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “I didn’t understand the nature of cold fire, and because of that, I lost the ends of my feet.”
Mitchell, an unassuming man who talks softly, volunteered last week to go public with his story as a warning about the creep of frostbite, urging people to get help immediately. What he didn’t realize was that his story would resonate with so many.
The first person to step up was John Ganfield and his wife, Julie, in Hanover, Minn. They agreed to take care of Mitchell’s dog while he recovered.
“What you’ve done for me, John, is beyond words,” Mitchell said, turning to Ganfield, who brought Hero to visit Mitchell at the hospital Tuesday.
Ganfield shrugged. “We’re just watching a dog,” he said.
A GoFundMe page started by Ganfield has raised more than $41,000 for Mitchell in four days. One donor paid for Hero to go to the veterinarian for shots and a little grooming. Others, including an 11-year-old girl who drew a picture of Hero in the sunshine, mailed “get well” cards and letters to the hospital.
“My heart is just overflowing right now,” said Mitchell, as he watched Hero circle the room.
For Mitchell, who plans to eventually pay the kindness forward, the generosity of strangers is life-changing. It means he and Hero can find a home once he recovers, he said.
While Mitchell knew last week that there was a chance he could lose some toes to frostbite, it wasn’t until Tuesday that he learned doctors planned to amputate both feet about midfoot.
Dr. Ryan Fey, the hospital’s burn center director, said the amputation is necessary because the frostbite cut the flow of blood to Mitchell’s feet and tissue died. An infection that followed added to the injury, he said.
All totaled, the hospital expects to perform about a dozen amputations following last week’s brutal cold snap that paralyzed much of the state. Most patients will lose tips of toes and fingertips, while four or five patients may require larger amputations, Fey said.
Mitchell said the reality of losing part of his feet hit him “like a ton of bricks.”
Nevertheless, he says, he will be able to walk again, Hero at his side.