When dog attacks make headlines, they can spark heated debate, but the furor often dies down within days or weeks. The victims, however, suffer for years if not for a lifetime with physical pain and nerve damage, emotional shock from disfigurement, and the financial toll of repeated surgeries and therapy.
Ona Deane-Gordly knew that once she left the hospital and the intravenous pain medications and shock wore off, she would be in for some deep hurt.
An attacking dog had peeled her scalp from her skull and ripped her teeth and gums from her jaw. More than 70 bites left the skin and muscles of her arms hanging like rags from her bones.
Thousands upon thousands of stitches and hundreds of staples had been used to piece her together in the trauma ward of Harborview Medical Center.
What she didn’t expect was that the pain would be so bad it would take her more than a year to realize she also had a broken foot, or that permanent nerve damage meant she would never again feel the difference between satin and velvet with her fingertips.
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She didn’t know the itching that marked the healing of her deep wounds would be so intense it would nearly drive her mad.
“The doctors don’t tell you about that,” said Deane-Gordly, 63, of Spanaway, Pierce County. “There are people who say they’ve thought about suicide because of the itching.”
When dog attacks make headlines, they can spark heated calls for new animal-control policies, breed bans and higher criminal penalties for the owners of vicious dogs, but the furor often dies down within days or weeks.
Victims, however, suffer for years, if not the rest of their lives, with physical pain and nerve damage, emotional shock from disfigurement, and the financial toll of repeated surgeries and therapy.
Henri Gaboriau, a Sammamish plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructing faces destroyed by animal bites, said repairing facial wounds caused by a serious dog attack takes a minimum of two to five procedures.
“The wounds are devastating to the patient and very, very painful,” Gaboriau said. He said most victims of serious dog bites suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and what can be a lifelong fear of dogs.
If they have a face wound, he said, it can destroy their self-confidence and sense of themselves.
“We have to reassure them that this is going to be an ongoing project and that we will try to make them look as normal as possible.”
More than 1,000 dog bites have been reported in Seattle and King County this year, according to animal-control statistics.
The majority of bites are minor, although Gaboriau warns that even simple puncture wounds should be treated by a medical professional.
But dog attacks that cause serious damage also are on the rise, Gaboriau said, perhaps simply because there are growing numbers of both people and dogs. The city and county do not classify bites by severity or keep statistics on the number that require medical treatment.
Most serious injuries are not caused by stray dogs, like the two unneutered males that escaped their fenced yard and mauled 71-year-old Huong Le last month on the lawn of her SeaTac home.
According to family members, Le is recovering at home but is in constant pain. The wounds on her legs remain as red and raw as the day she was attacked, and she may never regain the full use of one arm.
Rather than dogs running loose, Gaboriau said, most bites are administered by family pets.
“You lean over, you want to give the dog a kiss, and snap, they nip you and take away a part of your lips or your nose.”
Jessica Kutzuk, 25, of Redmond, lost part of her mouth when she was bitten by a family friend’s golden retriever two years ago. She declined to be interviewed but allowed Gaboriau, who treated her, to discuss her case.
“It was very hard for her,” Gaboriau said. “She is a very pretty girl who had beautiful, full, red lips, the kind people pay to get, and suddenly they were gone.”
Kutzuk’s lips were rebuilt using tissue from the inside of her mouth, but she still struggles with self-esteem, nerve pain and a terror of dogs, he said.
Deane-Gordly, a Brooklyn native who conducted surveys for research studies about intimate topics ranging from drug use to sexuality to grieving, was known by co-workers for her ability to handle tough interviews and tough neighborhoods. She had been conducting a survey at the Maple Glen Apartments in Mountlake Terrace two years ago when she was attacked by a male pit-bull mix that leapt onto her from a second-story balcony.
Deane-Gordly said she fought mightily, but the more blood she lost, the slicker and more uncontrollable the uncollared dog became.
“Blood, pieces of hair and flesh were everywhere within an approximate 50-square-foot area,” a Mountlake Terrace police officer wrote in a report dated March 17, 2006.
The dog’s owner, who was unable to pull the dog off Deane-Gordly, told police that numerous surgeries and months of illness had prevented her from training the dog correctly.
When police arrived, some 15 minutes later, the dog was still locked onto Deane-Gordly, according to police reports. An officer tried in vain to get him to relinquish his hold, and ultimately fired a shot that wounded the dog.
The dog ran off but was captured in his owner’s apartment. The owner gave permission to have the dog euthanized, and she was not criminally charged or cited in connection with the attack.
Deane-Gordly was rushed to Harborview, where she underwent dozens of surgeries during her 15-day stay and was told by doctors she was lucky to be alive.
When she returned to the Spanaway home she shares with her husband of 29 years, she found herself facing a new battle.
In the hospital, she was heavily medicated and in shock, she said.
But at home she found that the pain reached new and more intense levels.
The skin on her arms felt like it was falling off, she said, and it felt like somebody was running a hot iron back and forth over her hands.
She said she had to beg for, and justify, every pain pill she took because doctors and pharmacists were fearful of addiction.
The scars left from her lifesaving surgeries were hideous reminders of the attack.
“At Harborview,” Deane-Gordly said, “they are worried about saving your life, not how you look, but I had deep scars on my face, and one eyebrow was higher than the other. Every time I looked at my body, I relived the attack.”
The state Department of Labor and Industries balked at paying for plastic surgery and dental reconstruction.
“They said, ‘Why do you want your face fixed if you’re not going back to work?’ ” she said.
The reconstructive surgery Gaboriau performed ultimately was covered by the health insurance Deane-Gordly had through her husband’s job.
For a long time she couldn’t walk outside for fear of dogs, and she made a point of parking near the shopping carts at stores to be sure that dogs couldn’t lunge at her through the windows of nearby parked cars.
Everything she once knew about her body had changed.
Some of those changes were directly and obviously linked to the attack. Her feet and ankles were so damaged that she no longer could wear high heels, and the scars on her arms compelled her to wear long sleeves on even the hottest summer days.
But others were subtle or unexpected.
The extensive nerve damage she suffered lightened the overall color of her skin.
Her allergies changed.
Her sense of smell and taste changed.
She no longer could tolerate coffee and cigarettes but found herself eating ketchup and pickles, which she once had despised.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “But the truth is that after something like this, you have an entirely different body.”
Loved ones suffer, too
As is typical for the loved ones of victims, Deane-Gordly’s husband, Tyrone Gordly, also suffered.
He was shocked that it was her and not him, a retired postal worker, who was attacked by a dog. He felt helpless and outraged about the pain his wife suffered.
He also was indignant and a bit humiliated when he went out in public with the woman he loved and found people staring at her bruises and scars, and then turning their eyes on him with what he felt was dark hostility.
“They thought I was beating her,” the 70-year-old said. “I had to take off my hat to show them I have gray hair and I’m not up to that sort of nonsense.”
Unlike Huong Le’s adoptive son, Eric Makus, who has become an advocate of breed bans, Deane-Gordly does not believe they work.
The city of SeaTac already had an ordinance to protect residents from known dangerous dogs as well as pit-bull breeds when Le was bitten in September, she said.
However, she does favor laws that would create stiffer criminal penalties for the owners of dogs that bite.
“I know they have to put rapists and murderers in jail, but bad breeders and bad owners need to be there, too,” she said.
“As a society, we can’t afford this kind of danger and mayhem, we can’t afford these kinds of injuries,” she said. “They aren’t cheap.”
She is seeing a therapist and expects her injuries to persist, in one form or another, for the rest of her life. She only recently has been able to talk about what happened to her.
“It’s like having the same nightmare over and over. I can still remember the feel of his teeth,” she said. “That kind of thing you never forget.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com