BOWLER – The family of a 35-year-old Shawano County woman is calling her a "hero" after she saved her 4-year-old son from an attack by the family's dog last week.
Heather Pingel, a stay-at-home mother of two and a 2005 Wittenberg-Birnamwood graduate, was rushed by paramedics to Aspirus Wausau Hospital following the Dec. 8 incident at the family's home in Bowler, but her injuries were extensive and she died about noon Thursday, according to her sister, Shannon Pingel.
Her son, Damion Bernarde, received roughly 70 stitches to his leg following the incident, but he is back home with family, Shannon said.
“She is the bravest, strongest mother I know to do that for her child; she risked her life to save him," Shannon said. "She is a hero."
The attack happened while Damion and Heather were home. Heather's 5-year-old daughter, Carmen Bernarde, was at school, and the children's father, Shane Bernarde, was at his brother's home, Shannon said.
When Shane returned home that afternoon, he said Heather was in the bathroom with the door closed and she told him that Damion had fallen down the steps and she didn't know where he was, according to a police report from the Shawano County Sheriff's Office. After he located the boy in the living room, Shane returned to the bathroom and found the family's pit bull attacking Heather.
“We don't know how long she was in there fighting him off," Shannon said. "Shane got home to find her lying on the bathroom floor. She said, ‘I have no arms and I'm dying.'"
Shane told officers he grabbed the dog and pulled it outside, grabbed a pistol and shot the dog, according to the police report. Shane was bit by the dog, as well.
When officers arrived shortly before 3 p.m., they found Heather on the bathroom floor, struggling to breath and unable to speak. Damion was sitting in a chair in the living room with a severe injury to his leg, the report said. The dog was dead.
Heather, Damion and Shane were taken by ambulance to the hospital for treatment.
Heather suffered from kidney failure following the attack and both of her arms were amputated, among other health issues, Shannon said.
The immediate aftermath was a blur for everyone involved, says Shannon. Only Heather knows for sure what happened and she was unable to communicate with family and police. But the family has a theory on what caused the dog to attack.
“The dog was always kinda skittish when loud noises happen, so we are guessing Damion fell down the stairs and was crying and might have even kicked up towards the dog, and the dog grabbed his leg and Heather did everything she could to save her son,” Shannon said.
Since a majority of the attack happened in the bathroom, they believe Heather found the dog, who outweighed her by at least 30 pounds, attacking her son and struggled to get it away from her son and into the bathroom, Shannon said.
According to the police report, the Dec. 8 incident was not the first time the family's dog had shown signs of aggression, but Shannon said Heather had a fondness for animals and couldn't toss the pet aside.
“My sister has the biggest heart for animals and just couldn't get rid of it ... her heart was too big and they thought they could fix him,” Shannon said.
A local veterinary clinic told police the dog was up to date on its shots and did not have any known health issues.
Officers said in the police report the incident did not appear to be "criminal in nature," and the dog would be tested by the health department.
Following Heather's death on Thursday, Shannon shared a message to her sister on Facebook.
"RIP my sweet sister. We will all be here for your babies! Give grandma a hug and wait for me to get there. ... I love you soo much! This isn't gonna be easy."
Shannon has also started a GoFundMe account to help the family with medical bills, funeral costs and to support Damion and Carmen. The fundraiser had raised more than $5,500 by Thursday evening.
This article originally appeared on Wausau Daily Herald: Pit bull attack: Wisconsin woman dies saving son