It had to be terrible.
The young man was among thousands at the Route 91 Country Music Festival when the shooting started.
He was shot and couldn’t move his legs. TV news crews would report that Michael Caster’s girlfriend asked six other people to help get him on a table and into a vehicle and he was taken to Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas.
Days later, he was in bed when some four-legged comforters came in his room. A golden retriever named Lois was there.
And so was Katie — one of 19 Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs from throughout the country brought to Las Vegas after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. History.
Fremont handlers Dawn Gilfry, Brooke Johnson and Deb Heuer took Katie to Las Vegas last week after gunman Stephen Paddock fired on the crowd of concert-goers in a rampage that left 59 people dead and more than 500 injured.
The Fremonters and their seeing-heart dog from Trinity Lutheran Church helped bring comfort to shooting victims and their families, schoolchildren, medical professionals, police, firefighters and hotel employees.
“A lot of people will come to the dogs first because they don’t judge. They don’t tell secrets and they’re there loving on them. We say it’s the bridge to the people,” said Top Dog handler Gilfry.
“God made these dogs sensitive to people’s emotions and hurts,” Heuer added.
Handlers are taught to be quiet — unless someone wants prayer — because after a tragedy most people just want somebody who will listen and simply be there, not pepper them with questions or try to fix them.
So handlers stood nearby while men in business suits and preschoolers alike got on the floor to pet and even lie next to the specially trained dogs for doses of furry comfort.
And throughout their visit, the women often heard people say, “This is the first time I’ve smiled,” “This is the first time I’ve cried” or “This is the first time I’ve felt normal” since the shooting.
Johnson and Katie sat with one shooting survivor’s mother during an interview with TV’s Inside Edition. The woman told how comforting it was to have the dogs’ and handlers’ support during such a hard time.
“It’s humbling to have someone you’ve never met allow you into some of their darkest moments and it’s all because of a bridge from a dog,” Johnson said.
The handlers (there were more than 30) divided up, going in different groups. Gilfry and Johnson stayed from Oct. 3-6. Heuer returned with Katie last Monday. While in Vegas, the handlers’ days lasted from 4:30 a.m. often until 10 or 10:30 p.m.
Johnson and Gilfry were in the hospital room of a middle-aged woman who’d been shot and had no feeling in her legs. Family members joked that they’d adopted a young man in the room as a new son.
Gilfry asked the man, not more than 30 years old, how he was related to the woman.
“I’m the one who got her out,” he said, quietly. “I’m the one who saved her.”
And he hadn’t left her side since.
Handlers sat in a waiting room with family members of two brothers, who were at the concert. One brother, a rookie firefighter, saved his sibling who’d been shot in the chest, then went back to save others before going to an emergency room where he did triage. The firefighter’s captain, who laid on the floor and petted Katie, told how proud he was of the rookie.
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Family also said the brother who was shot was in such good shape that his muscles kept the bullet from hitting his heart. He was even walking the hospital’s hallways.
Heuer was with other handlers and dogs that went to the Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino, where they met a young woman named Hope, who was in charge of guest services. During the shooting, Hope had to take care of the hotel’s 3,000 guests and employees and some hysterical concert-goers who’d come into the building.
At the same time, she was scared for her sister, who was at the concert. Her sister would be OK, but the situation had been traumatic. Hope came to the hotel to see the dogs.
“I was able to pray with her and some of her co-workers,” Heuer said. “I saw two of her co-workers give her hugs and talk about her being a hero and that she had the right name.”
Handlers and dogs went to Mandalay Bay Resort, where the shooter had been, to comfort employees.
Heuer, Katie and Team Nico (with Comfort Dog Nicodemus from Seward) were in the staff cafeteria where they met a young couple, Ken and Lindsey, who were at the concert and ran 2 ½ miles before stopping. They went inside a restaurant, but fled after hearing rumors that the shooter was coming there.
The two became caught up in a running crowd and were separated. Ken could see Lindsey, but she couldn’t see him and couldn’t stop or she’d have been trampled.
They were reunited and Oct. 5 was their first day back at work. When their boss saw the couple petting the dogs, he told them to stay as long as they needed.
On Oct. 6, Heuer and Katie were among dogs and handlers at the Clark County Coroner’s office after a request for a visit. The office had to deal with all the fatalities from the shooting, including the shooter.
“They had to process all the victims, identify them, bag up their belongings, return them to the families, and some didn’t go home for three days,” Heuer said.
Coroner’s office workers appreciated even being considered for a visit and Heuer noticed they didn’t get the food or treats that businesses and individuals sent to other places.
And while handlers and dogs previously stopped by the Metropolitan 911 call center, they returned Sunday night — exactly one week after the shooting — and visited people who’d worked during the rampage. Workers told how overwhelmed they’d been by all the calls.
“They were getting thousands of calls as it (the shooting) happened, but there was still the rest of the city calling in with car accidents or things happening that they also had to deal with,” Heuer said.
Something unusual did occur.
“One supervisor told me it was like the crime world just stopped at that time. It cleared up lines for the emergencies that were happening with the shooting,” Heuer said.
Looking back, the women have many memories. Gilfry showed pictures a second-grade class at Faith Lutheran Academy drew for Katie, who visited there. One little student’s father was recovering after being shot at the festival.
Heuer showed a T-shirt bearing photographs of 17-year-old identical twin sisters Natalia and Gianna Baca, seniors at Faith Lutheran High School, who survived after both were shot at the concert. The Fremonters heard stories from Comfort Dog handlers who’d visited the high school.
The local woman knows the times ahead will be tough for survivors.
“They’re going to have invisible wounds for a long time,” Heuer said.
Tragedy can happen anywhere, any time, Gilfry added, noting how rewarding it is to bring comfort in a time of need. For Johnson, the experiences come with a reminder: “Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to be heard and valued. If we all stop and take the time to do that, that’s how we bring comfort.”