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Tater Tot the Tiny 3-Legged Dog Saves His Grandpa From Drowning

Tom Kissel wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for his senior Pomeranian mix — read the harrowing story!

Tom Kissel had always loved his son’s Pomeranian/Jack Russell, Tater Tot, so when his son and his wife started their family and asked Tom if he would take in the pup, he happily adopted his then 10-year-old “furry” grandson. Not long after, Tater Tot developed a tumor on his right hind leg and sadly, the leg had to be amputated. But Tater Tot the 3 legged dog never let that stop him. He was Tom’s shadow. Tater Tot especially loved sitting at the helm, the wind in his face, when Tom took the family houseboat out onto the open water.

The only thing Tater Tot didn’t do with Tom was swim. He’d always just watch from the boat. It wasn’t that he couldn’t swim — Tom had made sure the little guy could at least doggy paddle just in case he ever accidentally fell in the water. And it turned out to be lifesaving — for both of them!

Tom Kissell with Tater Tott
Tom Kissell with his buddy Tater TotTom Kissell

Tater Tot the 3 legged dog and a true hero

One summer afternoon in 2021, Tom and his wife, Tonia, had spent the day on the houseboat. At one point, Tom took Tater Tot to shore for a walk and as the pair padded back along the floating dock toward their boat, suddenly, a large boat passed going way too fast and its powerful wake slammed against the dock.

Tom lost his footing, struck his head, twice, against a nearby boat and the 76-year-old Mars, Pennsylvania, plummeted into the 20-foot deep basin along with his faithful furry friend.

Bobbing to the surface, Tater Tot looked left, then right, but the 15-year-old pup didn’t see his best pal. The shore was 50 feet away and thanks to Tater Tot’s swimming lessons, he could have made it that far. But he couldn’t…wouldn’t… leave his grandpa. Where are you? Tater Tot’s eyes searched the water for Tom, as he frantically swam in circles.

Across the marina, cardiac nurse Mary Jo Lender and her husband, Brian, had just docked after a day of sailing and were tying off their boat when Mary Jo heard splashing.

A race against time

Scanning the water, Mary Jo spotted little Tater Tot. “I thought the poor thing must have fallen into the water and couldn’t get out,” she tells Woman’s World. She called to her husband, who took off across the marina. Mary Jo kept her eye trained on the pup and breathed a sigh of relief when Brian jumped into the water and managed to pull him to safety. But then, Mary Jo gasped.

“There’s someone under the water!” she hollered, spotting an arm poking through the water’s surface.

Brian dove back in and found Tom floating face-down about six feet underwater. Brian tried to wrestle him over his shoulders, but at 230 pounds, Tom was too heavy. So, he grabbed Tom by the belt and pulled him to the dock.

Meanwhile, Mary Jo sprinted over. “There’s someone drowning — call 911!” she shouted to marina staff and others at the picnic area as she ran.

When Brian reached the dock, fellow boaters hoisted Tom from the water and laid him on the dock, and Mary Jo checked his vitals. “He’s not breathing!” she cried.

Coming back from death

Immediately, Mary Jo began CPR. “Come on!” she pressed and pressed, but every time she paused there was no pulse and no breath.

“It was a dire situation. I was losing hope,” Mary Jo admits. “But I knew if his heart did start again, his outcome would depend on whether or not his brain had gotten enough oxygen. So, I kept doing CPR.”  The marina was at the far end of a long, winding road, so it was 20 minutes before paramedics arrived.

“He’s gone,” one paramedic said, and sent someone to break the news to Tom’s wife. Tonia, who had been napping in the houseboat, had never heard the commotion. She rushed to the scene.

Seeing her husband lying lifeless, Tonia dropped to her knees. “Tom! Wake up!” she shouted and gave his face an urgent slap. Just then, Tom coughed — miraculously his heart had restarted. Tom had been without a heartbeat for nearly half an hour, but, thanks to Mary Jo, his brain had received enough oxygen — there was no damage.

“It was incredible. I really didn’t think he was going to make it,” Mary Jo says.

Mary Jo, Brian, Tom and Tater Tot
Mary Jo, Brian, Tom and Tater Tott

A happy homecoming

Tom had to spend time in the hospital, during which Tater Tot slept with his nose nestled in one of Tom’s hats. And when Tom finally came home, Tater Tot greeted him with lots of kisses. “Thank you for saving me.” Tom hugged his little buddy.

A few weeks later, marina staff threw a reunion celebration where Tom and Tater Tot got to thank Mary Jo and Brian. “I owe my life to you guys,” Tom told them.

City officials agreed and presented Mary Jo with two awards: the HeartSaver award from AHA and a Heartsaver Hero Award citation from the state House of Representatives. Mary Jo accepted proudly, but insisted the real hero was Tater Tot. “If Tater Tot had swam to shore, we never would have spotted you in time,” she told Tom.

“That’s my little man,” Tom beamed, smiling at Tater Tot, nestled in his arms, decked out in a tuxedo. “I couldn’t ask for a better friend.”

Tater Tot in his tuxedo

For more inspirational stories, keep reading!

This Feisty Dog Saved His Owner After He Suffered a Stroke

Our Dog Saved Our Family From a Dangerous House Fire

How One Puppy Hero Saved My Grandmother’s Life

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