Thursday, May 30, 2002

Pit bull attacks
Big Island doctor

The physician's ear was
bitten off in the attack and
was reattached surgically

By Rod Thompson

WAIMEA, Hawaii >> A Big Island doctor whose right ear was bitten off by a pit bull Monday went home from North Hawaii Community Hospital yesterday with her ear reattached.

Dr. Melissa Smith, 54, said she turned her face away from the dog as it ran across a Waimea street and leaped at her.

"If it hit me in the face, I would probably be dead," she said.

Dr. Emil Suzara, the surgeon who reattached Smith's ear, said she showed great presence of mind while fighting off the attack.

"Most people would panic," he said. "She said the adrenaline was pumping."

Smith said she was walking through a neighborhood where she had been many times before.

"It was so surprising to be attacked out of the blue," she said.

The dog, which she never noticed before, ran across the street, jumped and knocked her down.

As she turned her face away, the dog bit her on the right side of her head.

She realized the dog, later identified as Crusher, was standing over her with her ear in its mouth. "I gagged it and it coughed out the ear," she said.

She isn't really sure how she did it. "I was fighting for my life. The whole thing happened in a matter of seconds."

Two or three small children, from the house where the dog came from, took the dog home, she said. "They were very concerned," she said.

Two adults came to her aid, including a woman she knows only as "Val," who took her to the hospital.

Dr. Suzara, in telephone consultation with other doctors, operated immediately in his office with only local anesthetic.

"I was talking to her the whole time," Suzara said.

Suzara faced the problem that the cartilage in an ear has very few blood vessels, so it could easily die.

Suzara solved the problem by removing the outermost layer of skin, called the epithelium, reattaching the ear and placing it inside a pocket of skin he created by making an incision in Smith's scalp.

The scalp has a rich blood supply that will nourish the ear for several months, said Suzara.

Skin grafts of new epithelium will be needed later.

Smith has long hair which will cover that part of her head in the meantime.

Smith said she never had any special feeling about pit bulls before the attack.

"It's very different when it happens to you."

Franny Kinslow, spokeswoman for the Humane Society-Hawaii Island, said state law allows dogs "one free bite" with no consequences to the owner.

A county ordinance allows for declaring the dog "vicious" after an attack, which would require that the dog be securely confined from then on. But no penalty would apply unless the dog attacks again.

Then the penalty for the owner would be up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

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