Five months ago, I was on my way to cover a routine story about one of the many people in the Florida Keys still reeling from Hurricane Irma. But within moments after arriving at a Key Largo boatyard to meet the man I was supposed to interview, things went quickly wrong.
His Canary mastiff dog got into my car and attacked me, ripping off a portion of my face and breaking my hand.
I became the story.
In a matter of seconds, I got a lesson in anatomy. Flesh separates from our bodies easily, quietly and painlessly. I was reminded that graphic violence in real life happens fast and without warning.
The ground beneath me turned red in a torrent of blood coming from my head. I wanted to stay alive, and be able to ask my wife and our boys about their day, one more time.
Staying present through conscious breathing is what kept me from going into shock as the two other people in the lot with me screamed in horror at the sight of what just happened.
Some of my face was gone.
I’ll never look the same again. But after having my final of three reconstructive surgeries last week, I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.
I’m alive and whole again. I can live with the scars.
Things happen quickly and don’t always turn out well in a job that requires going on assignments to meet people you know nothing about and into situations where emotions often run high.
I’ve never been a war correspondent. My job is far from dangerous most of the time. Most days, it’s hovering over a keyboard, making phone calls, sifting through court documents and arrest reports, checking out the upcoming county commission and city council agendas.
Like many reporters, I have run into some danger. Last Super Bowl Sunday, for instance, I was interviewing neighbors of a woman who stabbed her baby to death. A man pulled a machete on me. The only thing that stopped him from swinging the blade was his sister begging him not to.
Then there are the emailed, voice-mailed and online threats from time to time.
But what happened to me had nothing to do with any of that. On Nov. 27, I was simply going to interview a local man whose boatyard business never recovered from Irma. Since the September 2017 Category 4 storm, we’ve done dozens of stories like it.
I pulled into the open lot off Jones Street, a wooded side road in the Upper Keys, late that afternoon. When I saw the man I was scheduled to meet, I opened my car door.
Before he got to my vehicle, and before I could get out, I was greeted by his canary mastiff, a breed started in the Canary Islands originally bred to immobilize cattle. His tail wagged as he stuck his head inside the car.
I patted the dog’s head after the owner told me he was friendly.
But, in a blink, the dog thrust himself farther into my car.
His jaws first struck my hand, leaving me with bite marks and a broken right ring finger. He knocked me into my passenger seat, latching onto my face.
The man pulled his pet off, wailing repeatedly at the animal, “What have you done?”
As I sat up, I caught a glimpse of myself in my rear-view mirror. Half of my nose was gone. The area in between my upper lip and nostrils had puncture wounds.
My face was mutilated.
I couldn’t ignore the amount of blood all over my car. On the dash. Dripping from the steering wheel and puddling on the ground by my feet. I was in a remote location about an hour from my house. Any vanity I had was overwhelmed by my desire to live.
The look on the owner’s face, and the panic he and his wife showed as I bled, made me think I said my last goodbyes to my family that morning.
I quickly stopped caring how I looked.
I wanted to hold my wife’s hand. I wanted to throw the ball to my kids and force them to go on runs with me, and badger them about getting their homework done on time so I can watch Jeopardy. I wanted to see them graduate high school, and hopefully college, and to fall in love some day.
Other than feeling like someone just stuck my face in snow, I wasn’t in any significant physical pain.
Medics with the Key Largo Ambulance Corps cleaned my wounds and bandaged me up. I’m amazed at first responders’ ability not to be fazed by what they see as they save lives. I was taken to Mariners Hospital, then up to the emergency room at Jackson South, where I spent the next five days.
Miraculously, a plastic surgeon was able to reconstruct my nose using a large amount of skin from my forehead and a small part of the back of my right ear. It’s a common and successful procedure my doctor told me originated in India hundreds of years ago. It’s also put to use in South Florida a lot due to people losing their noses to skin cancer.
I can smell. I can taste. I sneeze. My nose runs. Aesthetically, I went from looking like I was mauled to looking like I was in a car wreck.
Over time, the swelling will go down. After another touch-up surgery or two, it’ll look pretty normal. It could have been much worse.
I can’t feel parts of where it was patched up when I touch it. Same with some areas of my forehead. The doctor said this is normal. The sensation may or may not ever come completely back. I don’t really care.
I came a long way in a short time. My kids were in my hospital room when I came out of surgery. My face was completely bandaged and I was pretty doped up. A week later, when we picked the boys up from our friends’ house, my 9-year-old hugged me like he hadn’t in a long time. My wife told me this was probably because he spent the last few days convinced my face was gone. He was relieved to see only my nose and forehead looked different.
As with any prolonged difficult experience, there are a lot of good things I’ll always remember. My colleagues have been amazing from the beginning. My editor was on the phone with my wife immediately after he found out about the attack. HR has been with us every step of the way.
Our friends have been incredible. The Dempseys, whose daughter has been good friends with our youngest since kindergarten, took our boys in without us asking and treated them as if they were their own while my wife never left my hospital room .
Throughout our marriage, and especially since we’ve had kids, I’ve seen her selfless side on display more than not. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be as strong as she’s been during this ordeal if our situations were reversed.
I spent the first week being home not willing to see myself in the mirror underneath my bandages. So, every day, Colleen would take them off, clean the wounds, and reapply them.
The other night, she sliced her finger cleaning underneath the oven. I could barely look at the cut while I put on her Band-Aid.