Would you step directly into the path of a raging pit bull if it were attacking another dog and an elderly person?
Stuart Gherini, 65, would and did on a recent morning at Carmichael’s William B. Pond Recreation Area.
Animal control authorities have investigated roughly 700 dog bites and attacks across Sacramento County since Jan. 1. But this one – which occurred at approximately 9:45 a.m. on July 19 – was different because of the violence involved, they said.
Having escaped from a local backyard with another dog, the black and white canine, described as a pit mix, bit Geri Bigelow, 74, and her Australian shepherd, Gus, several times.
Gherini, who was taking a break during a bike ride, rushed over to intervene with other bystanders. They were able to get the dog away from Bigelow and Gus, but then it charged another woman and dog a short distance away. Gherini and others gave pursuit, and, armed with tree branches and rocks, they were able to stop the dog by hitting it on the head. The animal later would die from the injuries.
“He wouldn’t stop (attacking people),” Gherini later would recall.
Michael Doane, chief ranger for Sacramento County Parks, said he had never seen anything like it in 32 years of law enforcement. The same goes for David Dickinson, director for the Sacramento County Department of Animal Care.
“(The dog) could have killed me, and he certainly would have killed Gus,” Bigelow, a retired nurse, said in an interview earlier this week.
As it happens, this isn’t the first time Gherini has helped save a life.
In 1990, Gherini was swimming in a lane adjacent to Joyce Mikal-Flynn, an associate professor of nursing at Sacramento State. During the relay race at Jesuit High School for parents of teen swimmers, Mikal-Flynn sank to the bottom of the pool.
She later wrote in a book, titled “Turning Tragedy into Triumph,” that her heart had stopped beating for 20 minutes. Gherini, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, helped pull her out of the water and was among the group of medical professionals on scene who tended to her until she was taken to a nearby hospital.
The more you talk to people who know Gherini, the more you learn how he has changed the lives of others for the better.
Years ago, Gherini’s barber died suddenly. When Gherini found out the man’s daughter no longer would be able to afford college, he and his brother decided to sponsor her.
Meet Gherini in person and you will notice he has the appearance of a dedicated athlete. You also will notice his speech, which is quiet and halting. Before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003, Gherini was an expert skier who would conquer slopes accessed only via helicopter. He would travel to France and duplicate the punishing Tour de France course on his own.
In fact, Gherini said he became convinced that he had Parkinson’s when he was hiking up Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States. He made it to the summit, but knew he wasn’t right physically. A doctor later confirmed the diagnosis, and Gherini had to give up his medical practice.
“He made his living with his hands, and then his hands were taken away,” said Gregg Lukenbill, the developer and sports promoter who brought the Kings to Sacramento. Lukenbill has been a longtime friend of Gherini, who is nicknamed “The Mayor of the American River Parkway.” That’s because he rides the parkway’s trails every day. Pedaling his bike is the one way Gherini feels truly liberated from a disease afflicting an estimated 10 million Americans, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
“He has Parkinson’s but he never complains about it,” said friend Warren Truitt. “He never lets you know the challenges he is facing.”
A few years ago, Gherini underwent a deep brain stimulation surgery in which doctors drilled two small holes into his skull and placed electrodes into his brain. A second procedure implanted a generator, like a pacemaker. The device helps control the tremors endemic to Parkinson’s.
Gherini walks slowly, talks softly, but his body is fit and strong.
He was at the halfway mark of his 17-mile bike ride on July 19 when he noticed two dogs, each a pit bull mix, unleashed and without owners, running at “full gallop.” This wasn’t on some desolate trail of the parkway. It was near the entrance of a heavily used public park. There were other cyclists around, as well as parents playing with children.
For a moment, Gherini thought the two galloping dogs belonged to Bigelow. Then one of the dogs attacked Gus and Bigelow, who screamed: “Help me! Help me!”
“I can close my eyes and still see that dog,” Bigelow said earlier this week, bandages on both hands. “I had time to say one swear word and then he was on me.”
Gherini said he saw Bigelow fall to the ground. Though there were two dogs, only one was attacking Bigelow and Gus. The other dog, described as brown and white pit bull mix, was more of a bystander. (The bystander dog was later euthanized at the request of his owner, Dickinson said.)
“I told myself, ‘This is not going to end well,’ ” Gherini said, recounting his mindset before he jumped into the fray.
But in a very important sense, it did end well. Bigelow and Gus both survived the attack, with relatively minor injuries.
Gherini’s friends were stunned by the details of the incident, but not by his actions.
“There is no one I admire more than him,” Truitt said.
“He is as sincere and sweet a person as you will ever meet,” Lukenbill said.
Bigelow teared up when she spoke of how grateful she was for Gherini’s intervention.
Gherini declines any talk of accolades. He lives quietly with his wife of 40 years, Joan. They raised three daughters, have grandchildren. His courage, apparently, is matched only by his humility.