What Faith lost

What Faith lost

September 4th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Faith Guelde hugs Maxine while playing outside at her Hinkle home in June.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

ABOUT THIS STORY


To write this story, Joan Garrett followed Faith Guelde and her family, off and on, for more than a year. She went with Faith to school, softball games and doctors' appointments, and spent hundreds of hours observing family life and conducting interviews. The neighbor Tyler Ridley could not be reached. No one currently occupies the house where he lived because of tornado damage.

The doctors spent six hours digging out grass, dirt and pine needles that collected in Faith's body as she was dragged down a hill on Lookout Mountain.

Specialists pored over her wounds for a month. They shot 267 steel staples through the 8-year-old's yellowing and blue skin to close her up and handed Faith Guelde over to her young parents, Heather and Billy Keehn, with a few weeks' worth of gauze and tape and told them to take their baby -- once perfect -- home.

Her mother always called her itty-bitty because she still wore toddler clothes into grade school, and friends had come easily for the bouncy girl with bubbly cheeks.

Heather had a weak stomach. She was afraid to look at her daughter's wounds, the staples, the scarring, knowing Faith could never heal fully. So Billy packed gauze in the hole in her back. He lifted Faith's arm, just bone and skin, to clean underneath and lifted it higher to keep cleaning, even when she screamed for him to stop.

But at night, Heather kept watch.

Faith was known to dirty her feet running barefoot in the woods. She liked to feel her caramel hair blow when she raced four-wheelers with her brothers and talked back when she wanted something. Now, a quiet empty room terrified her.

She yelled for her mommy every night for a month after they left the hospital to come home, woke up sweating from nightmares.

The dog was running after her again, all muscle, gritting razor-sharp fangs, trying to latch onto her shoulder.

Heather moved Faith out of her bedroom, covered with Justin Bieber posters and school certificates, and put her twin bed in the living room. Billy wouldn't let Faith sleep in bed with them, afraid he would roll over in his sleep and break open a tender wound.

Before bed, Faith winced from dull pain. Teardrops wet her pillow.

"Why did this happen?" she would ask her mother. School was a month away. The boys couldn't see her arm like this. No one could see her arm like this.

"Nobody will want to marry me," Faith said, crying, searching her mother's face.


At 8, little girls can't wait to turn 16 or 18 and walk into their own fairy tale, and at 8 it seems possible. Long flowing hair. Pretty dresses. Perfect, smooth skin.

But at 8, before her first training bra or her first date, before her period or the prom or nursing a baby, Faith must rethink what it means for her to grow into a woman and into herself.

Strangers will always ask her about her arm. Doctors will always examine her, run their hands over her rough scar tissue and furrow their brows.

And her grandparents and parents and brothers are trapped inside this new reality with her, in a skin none of them wanted.

They are angry about what Faith lost two years ago, with questions that linger.


Faith was born in Ohio. Her mother worked at an automotive factory and already had two sons, Kaleb and Oscar, with two other men.

Faith couldn't drink formula as an infant because of allergies and grew to be thinner and shorter than most children her age. Heather counted the days till she could play dress up with the tiny girl. Every few weeks she fingered through racks of baby clothes at stores, looking for something perfect. She found it once, a canary yellow party dress with white ruffles, pink flowers and ribbons.

She pictured Faith going to dances one day. They would pick out high heels and go to the beauty shop to get her hair pinned up and hairsprayed.

But Faith wanted to be indestructible like her brothers. She liked to wander on paths cut through thick woods in the middle of the day. Her tanned, bony legs were always distinguished by Band-Aids or bug bites.

Tripping over a log. Running too fast during a game of tag. Skidding her bike on a pile of pebbles. Grinning and showing spaces left by lost baby teeth. That was Faith.

Kaleb and Oscar taught her to cuss and put her in wrestling holds until she cried out to her mommy to help.

Her grandfather, Howard Copus, had to tell her to get off the floor with her brothers and sit up straight. He took care of her during the day while her mother worked, and wanted her to be a lady. He brushed her hair when it was tangled and posed her for pictures to show his friends.

When it snowed, Howard hitched a sled to the back of a lawn mower and pulled her down the main street of town. She smiled like a pageant queen.

Howard was a hard man, with leathery skin and calloused hands. His arms were covered in green tattoos and most of his teeth were missing. But he was sugar when Faith was around. He called her his little squirrel, and told her she was destined for stardom in bright lights and movie posters. So he taught her to sing and wrote songs on his guitar so they could perform duets together.

When she'd performed in their living room for family, her parents and grandparents would look at each other grinning.

Faith saw those looks and made plans to sing on a stage one day with her grandpa. She would wear long, glittery dresses, and her parents would keep smiling. The boys would all want to hold her hand.

Then, change came in 2007, the year Faith turned 7. Howard started work at a wire factory in North Georgia.

A year later, her parents would move her south to a rented house in Lookout Mountain, Ga., that sat on the edge of a steep, rocky hill.


On Fridays in the summer of 2009, Faith's parents left her with either her great-aunt or her grandparents while they worked. Heather cleaned houses on the richer side of the mountain, and Billy repaired cars at a mechanic shop off Cummings Highway.

Faith had wanted to swim that summer. After second grade at Fairyland School had ended, she had wanted to take gymnastics lessons and eat Popsicles.

Faith Guelde plays among downed trees at her Hinkle home in June.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

When her dad got off work, she would sidle up to him while he worked in their garage, and, one night, a pit bull they hadn't seen before walked inside, panting.

She wasn't afraid when the dog came close. Faith had always been drawn to dogs. Skinny. Fluffy. Long. Dirty. She put her face close to their faces when she petted them, and got on the ground to tickle their hairy bellies when they wanted to play.

She moved toward the dog, but her father warned her away.

"No," Billy said. "Don't touch the dog."

"Why?" she asked.

"We don't know who that dog is. We don't know who it belongs to."

In the morning, Aunt Dawn was there to watch Faith. It was sticky hot on June 12, 2009.

At 10:20 a.m., the family dogs, Bear Bear and Hot Dog, ran out the back door, and an 8-year-old Faith, clad only in her bathrobe, sleep still in her eyes, wanted to go after them.

"Will you go with me?" she asked Kaleb, her 12-year-old brother who was just waking up, watching cartoons on television.

"No," he said. "I'm busy."

The neighbors, who were friendly but fairly quiet, had two female terriers that ran loose, and they kept a coon dog tied up in the backyard, none of which had ever caused any trouble.

But at the bottom of the hill, where she had gone searching, she couldn't find them. Then she saw the pit bull, from the night before, wrestling with Hot Dog.

Remembering what her father told her, she didn't go toward it. Her other dog, Bear Bear, was nearby. So she scooped him up in her arms, turned, and ran toward her house.

Behind her, the pit bull charged.


She felt the first bite on her left arm.

Where the skin broke it felt like knives. She screamed as the dog flung her 50-pound frame into the dirt. His teeth moved to her right arm, ripping her skin apart, severing nerves, breaking bones as he dragged her down the hill and continued to tear apart the muscles in her arm in the neighbor's front yard.

Faith Guelde plays on the tire swing at her grandparents' house in Rossville, Ga.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

She told her parents later that she tried to be brave, biting the dog on the head as he chewed into her. But it didn't stop the dog, which could have torn into her neck or her face if the neighbor's wife hadn't walked onto her front porch to light a cigarette and seen the bloody girl, struggling with the dog in the grass.

Her husband called 911, came outside with a rifle and put a bullet in the dog's head not far from where Faith lay.

When the woman rushed to Faith's house to explain what had happened, Kaleb ran out of the house in just his underwear to find her on the ground.

He called 911 seven times in a row on his aunt's cell phone. Panicked as he watched his sister go into shock, he slapped Faith across the face.

"Stay awake," he yelled.

Faith remembers him screaming at the dead dog's body.

"F* you. F* you."


A helicopter flew overhead just as Heather arrived at the intersection near her home after returning from work, and her chest tightened as she watched it land at the neighbor's house. Cars and paramedics were everywhere. Her aunt, clothes soaked red, stood in the driveway. A dog bit Faith, she said.

Heather ran up the hill.

"Whose dog was it? Whose dog was it?" she screamed at an emergency worker. "What happened? Where is she?"

Faith Guelde rides her go cart with brother, Kaleb Guelde, at their Hinkle home.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Kaleb, still in his underwear, was crying.

"She is going to die. She is going to die. I'm not going to have a sister. I should have gone [with her]."

"I'm sorry," her aunt mumbled, head hung low. "I'm sorry."

"If you don't calm down, you are not going to see her," the worker told Heather.

"What happened?" she screamed again. "I want to see her. Where is she at?"

"We just got her calmed down," he said. "If you go over there and get her worked up, you aren't going to do her any good. She has lost an enormous amount of blood."

And blood was everywhere. It was so thick on her face, matted in her hair, that Heather couldn't recognize her daughter. Two of her front teeth had been knocked out on a rock, and she couldn't tell if parts of Faith's face were gone, too.


Fifteen people crowded together in the hospital waiting room. They asked one another: "Did you see her? Did you see what that dog did to her?"

Her grandfather was the only one who didn't really want to know. He sat in a chair by himself and stared at the floor.

Howard thought about her tiny voice as she was wheeled to and from surgery 13 times over the next 28 days at Erlanger hospital. He wrote a song for her, practiced it aloud again and again as a prayer.

"On hands and knees dear Lord I crawl to thee. On bended knee dear God hear my plea," he sang.

The dog took her armpit, the doctors said. The bone in her shoulder snapped, and little flesh was left to cover her right arm.

Muscles were gone, the doctor said. So they tried to reconstruct her arm without them, cut into her leg to take veins and left a thick 7-inch scar on her inner thigh.

Faith Guelde talks on the phone as her grandfather, Howard Copus, watches.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Howard kept singing.

"From inside out dear Lord, from inside out. I beg thee, heal Faithy, from inside out."

She may never have sensation at the tip of her fingers again, the doctors said. As she grew, one arm likely would be longer than the other. She wouldn't have a breast on one side of her body. And the scar tissue, which would be tight and painful as she grew into a young woman, could only be addressed with expensive plastic surgeries.

The first time her father, Billy, saw her in the hospital, he looked away. His jaw tightened. His fist closed.

The neighbor's adult son, Tyler Ridley, owned the dog and hadn't given it its shots. He had kept it chained in the backyard and didn't tie it back up when it broke free the day before.

"Calm down," Heather tried to tell Billy.

"Look at her," he yelled.

On the bed, Faith was pale, doped on pain killers and crying about her missing teeth. There would be no money from the tooth fairy.

Billy promised to get them back for her. He spent hours on his knees sifting through brush and leaves where the dog attacked until he found one.


Six months after they got home, the family sued Tyler Ridley and his wife, Heather, in North Georgia civil court. Medicaid officers were sending letters and wanted to be reimbursed for the $2 million in surgeries and medication.

Not long after the attack, Ridley moved out of his father's house, with his wife, his dogs and his three kids, and would never appear in court.

Faith's family and court officials never heard from him. The judge ruled him in contempt of court and said Faith's narrative of the day would be held as fact in a future trial.

Heather and Billy's lawyer told them, if they found the Ridleys, it could take years before anything was settled and that victims usually didn't fare well in collecting damages in dog bite cases.

A janitor at Faith's school took up a collection for the family at his church. A doctor's office on Lookout Mountain helped purchase medical supplies for Faith. Two men who ran the West Brow Community Center held a fundraiser for the family. Billy told Heather that Faith should use the money when she turned 18 to reconstruct her right breast, so she could look like other women.

But the family needed the money for bills. Rent was late. The car payment was late. And Heather needed gas money to drive Faith to physical therapy three times a week. Nobody in the family had worked, coming and going from the hospital so much.

And, Heather wouldn't admit this to Billy, but she needed the money, too, to pacify Faith, who wouldn't go anywhere without her mother and often asked why she hadn't been there when the pit bull attacked.

Heather Keehn hugs Faith Guelde outside of their Hinkle, Ga., home.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

She rented the community center for Faith's ninth birthday and never went to a store with her daughter without buying her something.

And she tried to squelch a growing anger:

The day she thought she heard a woman whisper in Walmart, "Oh my God, did you see that girl's arm?"

The day the elementary school teacher gave Faith a rubber stamp to spell her name because Faith couldn't use her hand.

The day the teacher lost the special hook Heather had given Faith to button her pants after she went to the bathroom.

The day the school nurse called to ask if Faith really needed pain pills every day.

The day the principal complained Faith was missing assignments, leaving early, losing focus in class. She tried not to scream as Billy had.

Look at her.

But the anger took hold.

No one was allowed to drive Faith anywhere, she told family. If Faith fell or tripped, Heather would cry, and Faith would comfort her. Heather refused to let people visit. A mother who heard about the attack called and wanted to bring food, have her kids come over and play with Faith. But Heather said no.

"They are just trying to help," Heather's mother, Jodi, told her.

"I am not going to let her come up here and see Faith with her and her three kids who are in perfect condition, playing outside riding their bikes, and for them to look at Faith and say they are so sorry," Heather said.


Even after the sympathy cards were packed away and news of the attack fell out of the headlines, the dog was always with Faith.

Before showers in the evening, Faith trembled. In the mirror, she saw the back of her arm caved in, dozens of little white nicks covering her forearm, the web of thick tissue where her armpit used to be, and the dog's face came back.

Under the water, thoughts raced a hundred miles an hour. So Faith shut down her own mind by focusing on something else: yellow unicorns with green manes and her mother's smile.

Before the attack, she earned A's. Her mother framed a collection of her certificates -- honor roll, perfect attendance, the principal's award. Afterward, her report cards read C's and D's and F's and her teacher worried if she would pass.

"She forgets things," her grandfather whispers when she isn't listening. The dog had hit her head so hard on the rocks that some ability for memory could be gone, doctors said.

Faith Guelde checks the mail at her grandparents' house in Rossville, Ga.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

One physician wrote her an excuse for school so she could go to the bathroom whenever she wanted. She hid behind the closed door and cried when she lost focus. The dog. The dog. Always the dog.

After school started, the next fall, she came home some afternoons in tears, her chest heaving, eyes swollen and red.

Nobody likes me, she sobbed in her mother's arms. Mom, the other kids called me scar girl, and don't want to play with me cause they think I'm ugly, she said.

A girl ran behind her, barking during gym class, she told her mother.

"The pit bulls are coming. The pit bulls are coming," Faith said she heard the girl yell.

Some people have tried to tell Heather this happened for some reason. They talk about time and healing, silver linings and calms after storms. But nothing good could ever come from this, she thinks, and there will never be a way to explain it away.

Squeezing her daughter, she said the only thing she knew for sure.

"You are alive," she said, pulling her baby tighter into her chest.


Every month, the number of doctors' visits dwindled. By the beginning of fourth grade, the family went only once a year, waiting for the consequences of the attack to bear out in her body.

The pain faded, and, even though her nerve endings still misfired, looking for places that didn't exist to send signals, the tips of the fingers on her right hand didn't tickle as they did.

A plastic surgeon told Heather doctors can mask some of her scarring, put a balloon under the skin to stretch her scar. They can take some more skin from her side and rotate it to cover parts. Later, they can create a fake breast on her right side.

"There are all kind of fancy things we can do ... make you look pretty," a plastic surgeon, Jimmy Waldrop, told her during an Erlanger visit.

As she grows, she needed to live life as if the attack never happened, the doctor told Heather. So Faith asked to play softball with a local team, and reluctantly Heather agreed to sign her up.

Faith Guelde practices batting at the beginning of the season on the Lookout Mountain softball field.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

On the first day of meeting the team, Faith woke up at 6:30 a.m. to make sure she was the first on the field. She slipped into the red Bulldogs uniform her mother washed the night before, put mascara on her eyelashes and shook Heather awake.

Faith stuck close to her mother's leg in the crowd, but when she was alone for a moment, a girl around her age with long brown hair walked up, wanting to play.

"What happened to your arm?" the girl asked.

Faith avoided eye contact, trying to keep images of the dog at bay.

"Want to hang balloons?" the girl asked, changing the subject after a long pause.

Faith waited.

"Sure," Faith said.

She would hit two home runs that season, and the team would go nearly undefeated. Coaches and teammates gave her high-fives, and when she paused on first base, she could hear cheers from the sidelines.

"Go, Faith! You can do it!"

"Go, Squirrel!"


The family crowded around the table at Shoney's, and when the waitress came to take orders, Faith asked for sweet tea with extra sugar. The waitress brought plates for the buffet.

Faith, a few inches taller and 10, looked beautiful, everyone said. She smudged golden brown eye shadow on the lids of her green eyes, and wore a sleeveless shirt and shorts she bought with her mother at Kmart two days before.

Her cousin, who sat beside her, gave her a yard stick of bubble gum and a stuffed horse.

Her mother kept a letter in her pocket she wrote on an envelope to give Faith on this day.

Two years ago today our lives changed forever. Two years ago today you were attacked.

Today, I want to thank you for fighting to stay with me. You are by far the strongest child I know. I love you with every ounce of my being. I know you have a long road ahead, but I want you to know I am here with you.

You are my world, Faith. Love, Mommy.

Faith has played with her brothers or cousin or by herself most of this summer, chasing the final days before her last year at Fairyland School. But a boy from her grade, who lives down the street in a white trailer, has started to call a lot.

Faith Guelde holds Jordan Weaver, a family friend's baby, while hanging out at her grandparents house.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

She likes him because he makes funny smacking noises and can imitate a chicken better than anyone, she said. He asked his family to take her to church with them, and she dressed up. She brought him a hot dog and potato salad when he couldn't come to her family's cookout. And when he opened the door and saw her in muddy knee-high boots, he told her she looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her.

She blushes when her mother talks about him, but she loves it when Heather retells the stories. How he called seven times in a row and left a fumbling message. How he begged for weeks to spend a minute with Faith after school.

One weekend they made plans to race go-carts together, and her grandfather, Howard, was laying bricks on an outdoor fireplace when the boy arrived and walked straight toward him to profess his heart.

"I am going to marry that girl right there," he said.

Standing at the bottom of the hill, Faith didn't hear the exchange and screamed for him to hurry.

"Come on," she said, revving the go-cart's engine.

The boy turned and ran toward her. Howard laughed.

Rocks flew as they sped off.