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Valdez man donates leg to Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs

Jerzy Shedlock
A Valdez man who had his left leg surgically removed hopes to turn the unpleasant situation into something more by donating the limb to help canines from Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs learn to find missing people. Peggy Giles photo

A Valdez man who had his left leg surgically removed in August hopes to turn the unpleasant situation into something more. Donald Jacobs, 65, decided to donate his leg to Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs rather than let the limb go to waste. A volunteer, emergency service team will use the leg to train its canines to find people in distress. Jacobs and his girlfriend Peggy Giles sit on the board of Seeking Alaska’s Missing, or SAM. Giles started a Facebook page for Anchorage teenager Samantha Koenig when she went missing last year, and since then has offered support to families in similar, heartbreaking situations.

Koenig died at the hands a serial killer, but Alaska’s vastness cuts lives short as well. Multiple search-and-rescue missions were launched statewide this summer, prompting specially trained personnel to fly through rainstorms and treacherous mountain passes, all to risk their lives for another's. But when aerial searches are not enough, man’s best friend is often called upon to pick up the slack.

Troublesome left leg

Jacobs is a patient at the VA Puget Sound healthcare center in Seattle, specifically its spinal injury and rehabilitation center. He has been at the hospital, away from his hometown of Valdez, a port of call in the Alaska Marine Highway System and the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline, since Feb. 25.

He originally entered the hospital due to a spinal epidural abscess, a rare disorder caused by an infection in the area between the bones of the spine and membranes covering the spinal cord. It is generally seen in patients with a history of back surgeries or other procedures involving the spine.

During Jacobs' first 90 days at the Seattle hospital, he grew three abscesses, each requiring surgery. Doctors issued a code blue three times for the Vietnam veteran – a code for cardiac and respiratory arrest that required immediate medical attention, Giles said. He made it through the ordeal, but now, he’s paraplegic.

To make matters worse, his leg developed a sore. It continually caused problems, and doctors ultimately chose to remove the troublesome limb, because if the infection reached the bone Jacobs’ life could have been threatened once more.

As serious as the situation sounds, Jacobs remains optimistic. When asked why he needed to have his leg removed, he said, “Well, I thought it would just be a good thing to do.”

When a patient has a body part surgically removed, it’s up to the patient what happens to it. Not one to let things go to waste, Jacobs was left with a decision: what to do with the leg.

At the hospital, Jacobs heard the tale of another amputee donating his leg to the Seattle Police Department for the purpose of training cop canines.

Seeking the missing

An idea struck Jacobs. He thought it best to donate the leg for similar reasons. Giles, along with Jacobs, created the aid organization Seeking Alaska’s Missing, or SAM. The tech-savvy caregiver -- she looks after Jacobs, dealing with day-to-day issues and providing moral support -- started the group at the request of a Facebook follower, a fan of Giles’ other pastime.

Grandma’s Laughs and Tid Bits, another Facebook page Giles started in 2011 that shares Alaska and other family-friendly posts, has over 300,000 followers.

In February 2012, 18-year-old Samantha Koenig of Anchorage went missing from a midtown coffee shop. It took two months to find her, or her remains, and arrest her kidnapper, the now-infamous Israel Keyes.

While “Sam,” as Giles and Jacob call the teenager, was still missing, someone asked the Facebook savant to start a page for the missing girl. As a result, the couple became good friends with James Koenig, Sam’s father.

That relationship carried over after the Keyes saga ended, when the serial killer took his own life at the Anchorage jailhouse. Jacobs, Giles and James Koenig, along with two others, now sit on the Seeking Alaska’s Missing board of directors; they helped families going through similar struggles.

Sending the leg north

Everyone was onboard with the idea of donating the leg -- doctors, family and friends.

After surgeons removed the leg, pathology doctors took the limb and froze it. The leg sat in a freezer at the hospital for nearly a week; it was scheduled to arrive in Alaska last week.

Before the leg could be sent north, Jacobs had to sign off on the decision, as the leg was technically his property. Doctors also needed to check the limb for disease. Everything checked out, and plans were made to ship the body part.

Jacobs got in touch with James, who did the footwork for the donation. Koenig called ASARD and arranged the deal. He said he’s not sure if helping families lets him rest any easier about his daughter’s murder, but families should not have to carry that burden alone.

Through SAM, “We’ve helped numerous families since it began. We paid for flyers, printing and distribution, and gave donations to the families to help out with whatever,” Koenig said.

Help with human remains detection

The donation is very unique, said dog handler and ASARD secretary Corey Aist. The organization has never received an entire leg. It is generally scrounging for training materials. A whole leg is unprecedented, he said.

ASARD trains its dogs in several different disciplines, including wilderness and urban searches; avalanche searches; human remains detection, or HRD; tracking; and water searches, a branch of HRD.

Collecting materials to conduct the training can be tricky. There are a number of ways the team comes across the human scraps. Placenta is used; a birth from a team member usually results in such material. They also used human hair, which is collected from local barbershops. They have had luck with people donating their wisdom teeth, as well, great for training because the teeth often have remnants of blood and gum tissue.

To top it off, team members use their own blood.

Jacobs’ leg will be used for years. It’s a whole lot of material, more than 20 bones in the foot, the larger bones of the leg, muscle and skin.

“We’ll need to be sure and take care of the leg,” Aist said, “so it doesn’t get contaminated. It will be kept frozen.”

Parts of the leg will be hidden during training sessions, which the group does two to three times a week, Aist said. “It’s definitely a lifestyle.” Remote wilderness near the Anchorage Bowl is used for training, as well as buildings in Alaska’s largest city, such as the Anchorage Fire Department’s training center.

For water training, the pieces of the leg will be placed in capsules and sunk in water.

Aist compares the search-and-rescue missions and training exercises to games of hide and seek, though a bit more serious. When finding living, breathing individuals, the dogs learn that missing people can hide in the open, under snow, or in trees. The training with the leg parts is more sensory-type training. The dog finds a piece of cadaver, and it recognizes it as the scent of a human.

ASARD averages about two dozen search and rescue operations per year.

Jacobs said he hopes the donation will help find missing people and give others the idea of donating limbs to a cause.  

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com