For the first time in over a year, Sarah and Chris Linskey are able to look at their daughter, Charlotte, and recognize her smile. For most parents, this is unremarkable, but for the Linskeys, “it means the world to us,” says Sarah.
A freak accident
Feb. 13, 2017 started off as any other day in the Linskey household. Although the snow was falling outside, Sarah, Chris, Charlotte and their dog, Axel, were cozy as they went about their morning routine. Three months pregnant with baby Nolan and struggling with morning sickness, Sarah went to lie down. That’s when she heard a horrifying growl and ear-splitting scream.
Axel, the family’s black lab mix, had clamped down on Charlotte’s face. Chris, a former volunteer firefighter, provided first aid while Sarah ran to call 911. Chris cradled their daughter and talked to her through her screams and their tears.
After being rushed to the nearest hospital, the family waited for help in the emergency room (ER). Panic mounting, Sarah remembered something a friend told her: “If you ever have an injury to your face, it’s your right to ask for a plastic surgeon.” So Sarah did just that. But after waiting for what felt like hours, Charlotte had not received anything for her pain, the otolaryngologist had not come in, and the plastic surgeon said he “doesn’t operate on children.” The physician assistant offered to stitch Charlotte’s face, but Sarah refused. “I wanted her fixed, but I wanted her fixed by the very best,” she says.
Sarah, an audiologist familiar with Boston Children’s Hospital, requested a transfer.
Arriving at Boston Children’s
Sarah and Chris endured another ambulance ride with Charlotte and found themselves in the ER at Boston Children’s, still feeling scared and alone.
Then pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Ankoor Shah popped his head into the triage room and said, “I haven’t been paged to your case yet but I was wondering if I could take a look?” In no time, Shah performed a thorough examination, a surgery was scheduled and the staff arrived with toys and games to distract Charlotte.
“Finally, someone was actually paying attention and willing to help,” says Sarah.
Plastic surgeon Dr. Carolyn Rogers-Vizena arrived, greeted them and talked them through the surgery. They let go of Charlotte. “The nurses literally held her in their arms and carried her to the operating room,” Sarah says. Ignoring his night off and early work schedule, Shah chose to sit in on the entire four-and-a-half hour surgery.
Once in surgery, Rogers-Vizena and Shah found that Charlotte’s injuries were more severe than the first hospital had thought. The dog’s top teeth had cut under her right eye and his bottom teeth had cut under her lip and into her nasal cavity.
Rogers-Vizena says it’s important the family came to Boston Children’s. “We have a variety of specialists available to help manage all types of injuries,” she says. “An ophthalmologist evaluated Charlotte, identified the lacrimal duct injury, and we were able to perform a joint operation under general anesthesia to repair all of Charlotte’s injuries at once.”
Just two days after her surgery, Charlotte is wheeling pushcarts down the hallways and singing “Frosty the Snowman” with her music therapist. “For the next five days, Charlotte managed to warm the hearts of everyone in the hospital on that surgical floor,” says Sarah.
The following Wednesday, Charlotte arrived at Boston Children’s at Waltham to have a tube removed from her nose. Because there was so much damage to the inside and outside of her nose, the tube had been placed at the time of the original surgery to prevent her airway from collapsing. A stent had also been placed in her right eye and drained out of her nose to keep the tear duct system open. Rogers-Vizena and Shah wanted to make sure Charlotte could tear naturally and breathe out of her right nostril.
A parent’s journey
Even though Charlotte had stabilized, things were not easy for Sarah and Chris. “It’s very isolating,” says Sarah. “There are all these support groups for kids with medical conditions but there’s nothing out there for parents of dog bite victims.”
Seeking a way to cope with guilt and blame, Sarah started a Facebook page: Parents of Dog Bite Victims, to create a safe space for parents to share their stories, discuss medical procedures, and process their hopes and fears for their kid’s futures. She is careful to steer clear of the dog bashing that often accompanies these stories.
Sarah and Chris were also faced with the difficult question of what to do with their dog. They knew they couldn’t keep Axel, but didn’t want to put him down. They found a nearby shelter who shared their family’s story on social media. Within a day, there were 20 applicants for the dog and Axel moved in with experienced dog owners with no children.
While her friends twirl around in princess dresses, Charlotte pulls on her doctor’s coat. She is inspired to be a plastic surgeon just like Rogers-Vizena or an ophthalmologist like Shah. Now 3 years old, Charlotte has no long-term damage and no long-term fear of animals. Charlotte has no functional damage and her scars are fading. “I’ve learned that children are a lot more forgiving than we are,” says Sarah. Charlotte is brave, happy and thriving.
Her parents still struggle with uncertainty in Charlotte’s future, especially in a world where they hear so much about bullying. “It’s even more important now for kids to be kind to one another and for parents to talk to their kids about others’ differences in healthy ways,” says Sarah. “Nobody’s perfect.”
One thing is certain, however — Charlotte will never be defined by her scars.
Learn more about Boston Children’s Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery.