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Surviving vicious dog attack, Jim Stewart starts long recovery

Members of the Stewart family gather on a recent Thanksgiving Day at the dinner table. From left is Noey Falde; Noey's grandmother, the late Jean Stewart; Jean's son, Jim; and Jim's older sister, Jodie Falde, Noey's mother. The picture was taken in Jodie's home in the town of Martell. Jim Stewart, a 1974 River Falls High School graduate, was nicknamed "Hollywood" as a youth. Jim rose to the rank of sergeant with the Hudson Police Department before moving on in 1998 to security jobs for a bank and later a...

Days after his wife of 60 years suddenly died, Alan Stewart got a late Sunday night call recently saying his son was nearly mauled to death by his pet dog and was undergoing hours of overnight life-saving surgery.

Jim Stewart, 53, had friends with him at Regions Hospital. They told Alan to wait till morning to visit.

Naturally, Alan could hardly sleep before rushing off to the hospital very early the next day, Oct. 26.

The details he gleaned about his son's misfortune were not only grisly but baffling.

Jim Stewart, who grew up in River Falls and was a 21-year Hudson police officer before retiring in 1998, had most of the flesh from his face ripped off by Igor, his 120-pound American bull dog (closely related to pit bulls).

Stewart was found barely conscious on his back. Blood had flowed over the floor and spurted across walls.

Moments earlier, from upstairs, Stewart's landlady in the Woodbury, Minn., townhome where he lives heard an odd thump below.

Checking out the noise, she found Igor standing calmly over Stewart's still form.

Alan said Igor is the same breed of dog that Jim had for nine years before he was put down for cancer.

Jim then found Igor on the Internet from a Texas animal rescue group. He picked up the dog last June in Minneapolis.

"They took to each other right away, and it was the perfect replacement because Jim felt so bad about losing his other dog," Alan said. "The dog was smart, well-behaved, friendly. It didn't leave messes when it was left alone inside all day. Igor even slept in Jim's bed and expected to be rubbed on his tummy in the morning."

So what made such a docile dog turn ferocious? It's a mystery, and the answer hinges on whether Jim's blank memory restores itself.

"He has amnesia over this thing," Alan said. "What he last remembers, before waking up at the hospital, is coming from work, relaxing, sitting on the couch with the dog to watch a little TV."

Jim could have bled to death if the landlady hadn't found him. She seized Igor's collar and led him to the garage. After closing the door behind her, she called 911 and then friends.

As gruesome as the attack was, Alan says there are reasons to be thankful.

"The dog didn't go for James' jugular, which would have killed him right away. And his eyes were left untouched, so he can see. It's also probably not so bad that he can't remember what happened."

After nine days in the hospital, Jim was released. At first he was heavily sedated with hundreds of stitches to hold together his patched-up face.

An ear is gone, part of his lips and nose are missing, but the skin is healing fast and, with reconstructive and plastic surgeries, Alan said his son's outlook is promising.

"He's improving every day and his faculties, except for that amnesia, are back," Alan said. "The stitches are removed, he's not bandaged, but we have to watch for secondary infections.

"His face is numb in areas, and he applies a medicated ointment four times a day to enhance the healing. He can't chew anything, so he's on liquid diet -- cream soups, malted milks -- foods with high nutrition and protein.

"The specialists sound optimistic that they'll have him looking pretty good, but it will take time."

Igor was finally put down, but not immediately. Permission for such a procedure must come from the dog's owner.

Because of the disfigurement and painkilling morphine, Jim was unable to communicate his wishes. By nodding in his hospital bed when the question was put to him, the order to euthanize Igor was eventually given.

After his hospital release, instead of recuperating at a nursing home, Jim was given the OK to stay with Alan at his River Falls home.

Alan, a former River Falls dentist, retired in 1987.

Following their 60th anniversary in September, Alan's wife Jean died Oct. 23. She had emphysema and broke a hip recently, but her death still took Alan by surprise.

"What happened to James was terrible, but I'll tell you, it's been a diversion from the grieving for my wife," he said. "I haven't had time to feel self pity. I've had to help my boy.

"Now that James is here, the house doesn't feel as empty. Life goes on. I just want to get back into the swing of things. I wasn't eating for a while. Lost 10 pounds, but now my appetite's coming back.

For those who wish to send get-well greetings to Jim Stewart, Alan's address is 217 E. Maple St., River Falls, WI 54022. People may also phone, but Jim's ability to converse is limited.