Missing woman found alive after 10 days

Rescuers carry Elinore Sheffield out of the woods behind Cazabella Conominums on SW 34th Street on a backboard Friday afternoon. The 66-year-old woman with dementia had been missing since last week.

KRISTEN NICHOLS/Special to The Sun
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
After spending 10 days wandering in the woods, perhaps subsisting on creek and pond water, a Gainesville woman with dementia was found Friday afternoon, thanks in part to her pet poodle.
Elinore Sheffield, 66, was found awake and talkative Friday afternoon, lying on the bank of a small creek in a wooded area near Cazabella Condominiums on SW 34th Street. In interviews later, she said she could not recall what she had been doing for the last 10 days.
"The odds of (finding her alive) were very low and it was God-sent that this happened," said Rich Gustin, 35, Sheffield's son.
Sheffield was last seen June 20 by a neighbor. She and her pet poodle, Peaches, were reported missing June 21 when her brother, David Sheffield, went to check on her at her home at 3615 SW 19th Ave. Three exhaustive searches were conducted over the next few days, but the searches dwindled after producing no signs of her last week and early this week. Involved in the searches were the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, the Gainesville Police Department and the University of Florida Police Department, the Florida Department of Corrections, Alachua County Fire Rescue and Alachua County Animal Services, among others.
In the end it was Peaches the poodle who led deputies to discover the missing woman.
A construction worker doing remodeling work at Cazabella Condominiums, which is about three-quarters of a mile from Sheffield's home as the crow flies, called Alachua County Animal Services around 10:45 a.m. Friday when he saw a poodle that matched the description of Sheffield's dog he had heard from the media.
Between 75 and 100 people from the agencies, who had conducted the previous searches, arrived to resume the search for Sheffield, this time assisted by Sheffield's small companion.
The curly-haired poodle began acting strangely while in the area of the search, Animal Services Officer Freddie Edwards said. "She went to whining and pulling and making all kinds of funny noises," Edwards said.
Less than 40 feet away, they discovered the missing woman.
"She was trying to get back to her," Edwards said.
Sheffield was found barefoot lying next to a muddy creek, just 40 yards from a law enforcement command post on the southern edge of Cazabella. The murky water in the creek rose to chest height in some areas. Sheffield's shoes and a ratty tennis ball were found about 300 yards away from where she lay.
"We have a rescue, not a recovery," said Capt. Jim Troiano with the Sheriff's Office. "Miracles do happen and this was one of them."
He said he believed Sheffield had been moving from place to place while she was missing, because the area where she was found had been searched by law enforcement during previous attempts to find the missing woman.
Sheffield was immediately transferred to Shands at AGH, where she was evaluated and found to be in surprisingly good condition, considering her ordeal.
Troiano said she was standing and talking and even asked to take a shower when she arrived.
"She clearly is very strong to begin with and extremely healthy for her age," said Steve Yucht, the emergency department physician who attended to her at Shands at AGH.
Yucht said that other than minor dehydration and some blisters she developed from walking without shoes, she had no notable injuries. He said he couldn't be sure if she had been drinking or eating anything, but it was likely she had because she was not severely dehydrated and did not appear malnourished.
She also seemed to remember nothing about spending more than a week in the woods, he said, a product of her dementia.
"Unfortunately we'll never really know exactly what she did to survive," Yucht said. "For all she knows, she spent the last week at her home."
Kathleen Bogolea with the Alzheimer's Association said it's not uncommon for dementia patients to forget large chunks of time.
"That can be very typical," she said. "Especially in extenuating circumstances where she's out of her environment."
Troiano said Sheffield told him she could hear law enforcement officers talking just outside the woods where she was lying Friday.
Gustin, Sheffield's son, who lives in St. Marys, Ga., said he and other family members have been discussing how to handle his mother's progressing disease and that it is simply hard to take a woman out of a home she has lived in for more than 35 years.
"She fights it tooth and nail because she's lived this way her whole life," Gustin said as he stood outside the hospital Friday evening.
Eileen Balaton, 39, from Maryland, said her mother is "a pretty amazing woman."
Sheffield became a single parent of three after her divorce when her daughter was five. "I can't even imagine how hard it was," her daughter said.
Sheffield has lived most of her life in Gainesville, Balaton said. Born in St. Petersburg, her family moved to Alachua County when she was a child.
She was a student at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, graduated from the University of Florida and later became a teacher for the Alachua County school system. She later worked at Tacachale, a community for people with developmental disabilities formerly known as the Sunland Training Center.
Balaton said her mother has always been physically active and very independent.
"She used to make us run with her on the paths around Lake Alice," Balaton said.
Sheffield ran the Boston Marathon 10 years ago. "She's run a couple of Paris marathons," Balaton said.
When Balaton lived in San Diego, her mother would visit and use her daughter's residence as a home base for other trips. "She would take 20 bucks and a backpack and spend two weeks in Mexico," she said.
And Sheffield built the addition on the trailer at 3615 SW 19th Ave., where she was living when she disappeared.
Sheffield's son purchased a Project Lifesaver bracelet for his mother Friday, which is a wristwatch-sized bracelet that sends out a unique signal that can be tracked in case a person with dementia is reported missing.
Gustin said he had not heard of Project Lifesaver before his mother disappeared, and Sgt. Steve Maynard with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office said Sheffield is the ninth person in Alachua County to receive one.
Alice Wallace can be reached at (352) 374-5036 or alice.wallace@gvillesun.com.

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