University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Dr. Ricky Clay specializes in reconstructive surgery on patients who have suffered animal bites.
Stories of children attacked by dogs frequently make headlines, but what happens to the victims over the next few days, months and years rarely does. Plastic surgeons like University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Dr. Ricky Clay specialize in reconstructive surgery.
If a child’s face is injured, doctors work immediately to try to address it, but most of the scar revision is delayed while the child grows. Clay often works with children for years following a bite trying to minimize the appearance of scars.
“It’s a very long process. Everyone thinks that you can fix it,” Clay said. “But a child is growing. And scars grow proportionally with the child. And growth hormone that makes you get bigger makes your scars get thick and puffy and ugly and red.”
Surgeries are scheduled around growth spurts. Clay said the surgeries for children are often done before the child enters school to prevent name calling, then again before the child enters puberty. More surgeries follow as needed.
About 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of those are children. Dog attacks, especially those by pit bulls, have been in the news this year in the Jackson metro area. In June, two children were attacked by pit bulls in separate incidents in Hinds County. Christopher Malone, 3, died after being mauled by two pit bulls in Holmes County on March 31.
And on April 9, Victoria Wilcher, 4, was mauled by three pit bulls at her grandfather’s home in Simpson County.
Every bite is different, but Clay said his goal is to give children the best possible high school graduation picture.
“Plastic surgeons never use the term ‘normal,’ ” Clay said. “We try to put things back as close as we can. But scars are like diamonds. They’re forever. They never go away. If somebody looks closely at your face, they can always see it. Our job is to fix it so that the average person passing you on the sidewalk doesn’t notice it in a cursory glance.”
Lessening the appearance of scars can really make a difference in the lives of patients. Clay said one patient was a very angry and sullen teenager. She had a cheek that had been scarred. Clay was able to take fat from her lower abdomen to make her cheeks match for the first time in her life.
“When she came back for her six-month check-up, it was the first time I’d ever seen her smile,” Clay said.
The plastic surgeon often gets frustrated with the media’s focus on one particular breed. He has seen bites from all breeds, including Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. The worst bite he’s ever seen came from a toy French poodle.
“Lady was going to kiss her little baby on the nose,” Clay said, “and it took the middle of her lip right out.”
Clay was bitten by a German shepherd when he was 3 or 4 years old, growing up in northeast Alabama. The neighbors had the dog chained to the clothesline in the backyard and couldn’t reach its water bowl.
“So helpful me toddles out there to take the dog its water bowl. So I went out, slide the water bowl over and it started drinking so I squatted down to pet the puppy,” Clay said. “And the next thing I knew it came up … I still have a memory of that dog’s mouth right there. I can see it in my mind.”
The “puppy,” as it turned out, was a trained guard dog who bit Clay on the face. Although he doesn’t have any lingering scars, it gives the doctor something in common with this patients.
“I can relate to the children who come in and have been bitten.”