When I was eight years old, my sister saved my life. She was seven at the time. It was about 8 a.m. on an unseasonably warm January day, and we were waiting in the driveway for our mom to drive our older sister, Erin, and us to school. Since it was a nice day, Maggie and I decided to pass the few minutes it took them to clean up from breakfast to visit our neighbor's dog, Nicky.
Nicky was a massive, 110-pound Great Pyrenees. Our neighbors kept him on a long chain, as they didn't have a fence. We sometimes let him into our fenced-in yard to play with our golden retriever, and when it was time for him to go home, we dragged him by the collar to our neighbors' front door. He was a friendly dog, but he wasn't very well trained. He jumped up on us a lot, and he once nipped the ear of a little girl in our neighborhood.
This particular morning, when Maggie and I walked into Nicky's yard, he stood still instead of running over to us. Not registering this as strange, I walked right up to him and started scratching him behind the ears.
"What's that in his mouth?" Maggie asked.
I leaned down for a close look, but I only caught a blur of brown at the side of his jaw as he lunged forward. Sixty seconds or so seemed to pass in an instant, but the location and severity of my various injuries later helped us piece the moments together. Nicky bit at my face, his teeth catching the skin at my eye and mouth. He tore at my hair and then went for my left arm. I kicked him as hard as my skinny legs could, and I tried to push his face away with my right hand. He clamped down on my hand and shook his head furiously, just like my dog would when playing tug-o-war with a rope toy.
When he first pinned me, Maggie thought it was just Nicky being Nicky, playing hard because he was huge and didn't know any better. But when I screamed and she saw blood, she grabbed Nicky's chain and started pulling with all her might. She weighed about 45 pounds, but she kept yanking until Nicky got distracted. When he finally turned to her, I scrambled to my feet and we ran for the house.
The neighbors later told my parents that they had given Nicky some leftover steak as a treat. That's what was in his mouth. Great Pyrenees are very territorial around food, and keeping a dog on a chain has been shown to increase aggression and territorial defensiveness. My dad later pressured the neighbors to have Nicky euthanized, though everyone told me that he had been sent to a ranch for angry dogs. I bought it, and I went on believing that Nicky was at doggy anger management until I was in high school.
The bleeding didn't seem bad enough for my mom to call an ambulance. Instead, she packed Erin, Maggie, my infant sister, Claire, and me into the car and headed for the emergency room. I started zoning out and showing signs of shock during the drive, so my mom and sisters sang songs to keep me distracted.
In the ER, Maggie and Erin kept creeping up to my hospital bed when no one was looking, lifting a clump of my hair, and screaming and scattering when the scalp came up with it. Eventually, a family friend showed up to take them to school. I looked at my chewed-up thumb with distant curiosity, and I watched Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis on the news.
The next two weeks were a blur of surgeries, flowers, teddy bears, and dry heaving when the medicine made me sick. The surgeon who worked on me was a hand specialist who frequently worked with children and victims of animal attacks. He had a great bedside manner, and my parents trusted his judgment. I was a kid, so I didn't really understand how serious my injuries were or how high the risk of infection was. I was on painkillers and antibiotics, and I had drainage tubes coming out of two of my wounds, but by the end of my hospital stay, my mom had to stop me from doing one-handed cartwheels down the hall.
When I returned to school a month later, I still had a PIC line in my arm. That's a long, flexible IV tube inserted at the wrist that ran all the way up a vein my arm, so that I could go home and move around normally and still be hooked up to my antibiotics at night.
I had bad dreams — not about Nicky, but about my uncle's pit bulls. I dreamed they were chewing on my hands. My first day at home, while my mom made me lunch, our golden retriever, Bailey, came into the room. He must have sensed that I was nervous or that I was injured, because he walked up to me slowly and nudged my bandaged and splinted hand with his nose. He's the reason I never had a lasting fear of dogs. My dad and step-mom even have a Great Pyrenees named Trixie — a big softy.
Over the six months following the attack, I had a total of six surgeries. The last one took place the day before my ninth birthday. My mom and step-dad had started to worry that all of these operations weren't necessary, but my dad and step-mom trusted my surgeon completely. All of my parents wanted to make sure that I was healthy and safe, and in the end they did whatever the surgeon said I needed.
The last surgery is the one I remember the most clearly. The surgeon said it was for scar reduction. I had two small scars on my face, a Harry-Potter-esque lightning bolt on my right thumb, and a two-inch-long caterpillar on my left bicep. My sisters, in their meaner moments, called me Scarface. My mom was worried that I would be embarrassed by the look of them when I reached high school.
The surgeon used some sort of abrasive tool to essentially sand down the scar over my eye. After the swelling went down, that one did look a lot smaller; all the others, though, looked the same or even bigger to me.
By this point, all the talk about my scars had gotten to me. I was desperately worried that I was going to look like a freak to my friends, and to boys. The surgeon offered to do another procedure in a year or so, but mother had decided that enough was enough, and her nine-year-old daughter was not going under the knife again. She made a deal with me: if I waited until I was 16 and my scars still bothered me, I could have another surgery. She bought me cocoa butter to soften my skin and ordered a European scar removal system that involved creams and silicone patches.
I think she knew that if I waited a few years, I'd get over it, and she was right. After a while, the scar next to my mouth had faded enough that people stopped asking about it; the large lump of scar tissue on my thumb reduced in size as I continued physical therapy. My scars, and the story that came with them, became a part of me — so familiar that I often forgot they existed.
So when I learned at age 17 that my surgeon was on trial for fraud, it didn't immediately occur to me that I might have been one of his victims. To my mom and step-dad, however, things clicked into place.
My surgeon had been performing unnecessary procedures, and he had sometimes billed insurance companies for services that he never provided. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and had his license suspended temporarily. His practice as a whole pleaded guilty to felony fraud and paid over a million dollars in fines.
Families began suing. My family members asked me if I wanted to enter a claim. I thought about it. I was getting ready to start college, and money was tight — a settlement would help me tremendously. But all those surgeries seemed distant and inconsequential to me by then. And other things had happened in the previous several years that made me hesitate. Things were tumultuous with my family. My parents were in and out of court for several years, fighting over custody of Erin, Maggie and me. We had supervised visits with my dad and step-mom. We saw psychologists. We talked to child advocates and our parents' lawyers. I was once called out of biology class to make a decision about whether to continue seeing my dad at all. I was sick to death of court. I said no to suing my surgeon.
Now, another nine years removed even from that experience, I believe I made the right decision. At his core, I believe my surgeon is a good man and certainly a talented physician. I have full use of my right hand thanks to him. But he might have taken advantage of my family's trust. He might have put me under anesthesia several times, knowing the risks, and knowing he didn't need to be taking them. His confidence in his skill might have gotten the best of him.
Doctors face overwhelming and increasing pressure to treat more patients, and they receive less and less compensation for it. There's a constant fear of malpractice suits if anything goes wrong. I don't want to add to the negativity they face, but I do want families know that it's OK to ask questions and to get a second opinion.
And please, get a fence for your yard, and don't keep your dog on a chain.