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All day long, Will Sherman, 37, couldn't shake the odd sensation in his head. "It's like someone opened my skull and poured in a cupful of needles," he told a colleague at his job writing computer software for the state of Florida. When he checked in with his wife, Cindy, over the phone, he mentioned it casually. "Maybe it's stress," Will said.
He had good reason to be stressed -- the fragile bulldog he and Cindy had adopted just two weeks earlier had developed a bad cough. A friend of the Shermans had spotted the abandoned dog wandering alongside a rural highway near Tallahassee, where the Shermans lived. She picked up the stray but didn't have room for another in her own menagerie. She thought Will and Cindy, who have an animal-lover reputation almost as big as their vet bills, might, although they had no other dogs at the time.
"She knew we're suckers for hurt animals," says Will, who won't divulge the exact number of rescued critters they keep but hedges that it's somewhere in the teens. (Suffice it to say that he calls Cindy, 39, a stay-at-home mom although the pair have no children.) "It helps us sleep at night knowing we're doing all we can to help."
The bulldog that padded into their condo the next day -- newly treated for fleas but wasp-waisted and suffering from eye and ear infections -- certainly needed help. Will gave her a once-over and immediately locked in on the spirit flashing in her eyes. "She had the zest of a 7-year-old kid on the first day of vacation," he says. "I could see right away that she was the kindest, most crazily happy, appreciative animal I'd ever met."
Cindy says, "Will's eyes were begging me, 'Please, please don't say no!'"
It was an easy sell. "I'd seen Will get teary when he talked about his childhood dogs," Cindy says. Her husband, like the bulldog, had been bullied as a kid, she knew. Her fear that the cats and dog would fight quickly subsided; the new dog, who they named Bunny, seemed sensitive to cat etiquette.
At Bunny's first vet visit, far from being balky or difficult, she relished the attention. "No matter what they were doing to her, she'd just stick out her snaggly, underslung jaw and look at me with the most heartbreaking submission," says Will. "She was as sweet as could be, which was amazing, considering I was practically a stranger."
Vaccines and checkups followed, but Bunny, so named for her gentle ways, remained as docile as ever, joyfully snorting through treatments and showering the vet with slobbery kisses as proof of no hard feelings. Meanwhile Will, who had lived with cats for years, was in man's-best-friend heaven. "As an adult, you sometimes have to wonder what people are really thinking," Will says. "With dogs, their hearts are on their sleeve."
Even the vet commented on their strong bond. "You're going to drive yourself crazy worrying about that dog," he told Will good-naturedly while treating her cough (related to her treatment for heartworm) with a steroid shot on that fateful day. They left the office and walked through the quiet parking lot to the car. Just as Will opened the car door everything went black and he lost consciousness.
No one knows exactly what happened next, but the scratches around Will's neck were one clue that Bunny began pawing him, presumably trying to rouse him. Getting no response, Bunny bolted about 20 yards to the vet's office and began barking and scratching at the door. The receptionist, who was sitting at her desk just inside, began to wonder whether something was wrong; Will was too protective to let Bunny off her leash otherwise.
Looking out the door, she saw Will slumped over the steering wheel. By the time she and her coworkers reached him, he was convulsing, his body half out of the car. Foam poured from his mouth as the vet's lab technician, who happened to moonlight as an EMT, held his head steady.
Just before the ambulance came Will regained consciousness but couldn't remember his name or phone number. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where he was given a CT scan and a diagnosis: a grand mal seizure, a type of epileptic seizure caused by abnormal electric discharges in the brain. Will was shaken by the epileptic attack -- nothing like it had ever happened to him. Discharged that night, he went home to his duplex, where Bunny bounded into his arms.
Will didn't learn the whole story of Bunny's heroism until a few weeks later. "If someone hadn't been notified so quickly, the outcome could have been much, much worse," says Mike Pridgeon, Bunny's vet. To date Will has had no further seizures.
Will still shudders at the thought of what could have happened had Bunny not been there. "I'm used to rescuing animals," he says, "but to have an animal rescue me? Just the thought of it chokes me up."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2006.