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Atlanta woman recalls the days her dog saved her life

News Photo by Julie Riddle Montmorency County resident Paula Bialkin sits with her dog, Gracie, near the paving stones where Bialkin spent five frightening days in April.

ATLANTA — After a few days, she stopped screaming.

Paula Bialkin lay on the pavement blocks outside her small home, tucked in the woods between Hillman and Atlanta. She couldn’t get up, and it was raining.

Neighbors — not that she has many of them — couldn’t hear her cries for help, couldn’t see where she lay as they drove by.

Finally, she gave up. It had been days. She was sure she was going to die, there on the ground, five steps from her front door.

Gracie the Wonder Dog had other plans.

The bluetick hound/lab mix with a severe shedding problem and a taste for produce was Bialkin’s only companion the day she fell, face-first, while bending to move a branch in her back yard. The dog’s warmth, officials believed, kept Bialkin alive until help arrived.

Doctor’s aren’t sure what made Bialkin tumble to the ground on a chilly day in April, Bialkin said later, seated in her living room under the watchful eye of the dog who saved her life.

After she fell, Bialkin, a stroke survivor whose left arm won’t move on its own, half army-crawled, half scooted across her woods-surrounded yard as far as the steps to her home. From there, though, she was stuck.

Her left arm useless, left leg only partly-functioning, she couldn’t get up the stairs, or into a sitting position, or into the car nearby to get out of the rain and occasional snow that spurted intermittently over the next few days.

“It was extremely scary,” Bialkin said simply. “I thought I was going to die.”

In the shady woods of Northeast Michigan, where many independent souls live surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of trees, screams for help can go unheard for days.

Bialkin, a Lincoln Park native who moved full-time to her Up North hunting cabin in 2015, loves the peace of her yard and garden and has no desire to live in town.

When she fell, though, aloneness left her shivering on the ground, only a dog by her side.

When the headlights of a passing car flickered near her driveway, she yelled and waved a solar light plucked from the ground.

She pressed the emergency button on her key fob until her car’s battery ran down and it wouldn’t honk anymore.

Nobody came.

The device around her neck, the one she calls her “I fell down and can’t get up” button, had a dead battery, too.

When she smelled a campfire and heard voices, she pleaded for help. Maybe that was a hallucination, she thought later.

A diabetic, she had nothing to eat, and no water except for the quarter-inch of rainwater she caught in a broken cup.

She thought about the bear that lives nearby.

A few times, she tried sending Gracie up the steps, then using the dog’s chain to pull herself to a sitting position.

“Instead, she would come down and lick me,” Bialkin said. “I kept telling her, ‘That doesn’t help me.'”

Gracie, with no food of her own except for the grass in reach of her 100-foot tether, stayed with Bialkin as she lay on the ground Thursday night, Friday, Saturday. On Sunday, under a black sky with huge snowflakes drifting overhead, Bialkin had a talk with God.

“I basically said, ‘if you want me, take me,'” she said.

She doesn’t remember Gracie lying on top of her. But that’s how law enforcement officers found Bialkin on Tuesday, two days after she lost consciousness.

The dog — who didn’t want to move when officers came to the house for a wellness check — lay on her owner for several days, officers surmised, instinctively protecting her in the 50-something temperatures and, probably, saving the woman’s life.

The 14-year old mutt who steals cherry tomatoes off of plants and loves carrots, green beans, and bananas — who is too old to sleep in the bed anymore but gives chin kisses and woofs pleasantly at visitors — has lived with her owner since puppyhood.

Gracie flunked her obedience class, Bialkin said, and she sometimes gets stuck under the deck or lies in the flower bed.

But, in the rain, in the cold of April with no food in her dish, Gracie decided to come, and sit, and lie down, and stay.

That Monday, as she lay on the ground with a dog, Bialkin missed a doctor’s appointment. That was unusual, and the next day her therapist called the Montmorency County Sheriff’s Department and asked them to check on her.

The deputy who visited almost didn’t see her. When he did, he called a Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, and together the officers got Gracie to a shelter and Bialkin to the hospital.

Later, after she was treated for two weeks in Ann Arbor and two more weeks at a local care facility, Bialkin went to thank the people who had come to her rescue.

The therapist, in tears, said she was just so happy Bialkin was alive.

“Me, too,” Bialkin said quietly.

The ordeal was terrifying, she admitted. But, as long as she was alive, she didn’t have any alternative but to wait and hope.

“All that, and I didn’t lose any weight,” she said with playful annoyance.

Now, she keeps an air horn and whistle nearby, and she’s hoping to buy a strobe light, just in case. She doesn’t walk around in the yard anymore.

She isn’t thinking of moving closer to other people, though, Bialkin said. She loves her private bit of nature.

Besides, she has Gracie the Wonder Dog.

Always attentive, the dog now follows her everywhere, alert to every move.

“I think she just doesn’t want Mommy to go away again,” Bialkin said affectionately.

As though knowing she was being discussed, the dog lifted her head and glanced at her owner, making sure all was well.

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