One little girl and her mother stood at their hospital room door eagerly waiting. “He’s right there!” another girl yelled.
The dog’s furry tail wagged happily from side to side while walking down the hallway of Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital as kids waited to catch a glimpse of Dexter, the golden retriever and Labrador mix who serves as the hospital’s facility dog.
But one little boy stood out. He wasn’t talking or smiling. He watched and patiently waited for his turn with Dexter.
Austyn Clanton wasn’t even sure he would have the courage to actually touch a dog again. A month earlier, the 8-year-old was viciously attacked by his own family dog, Mattis, at his family’s home in Beaumont, while play wrestling with his two younger brothers, Trystan and Jordyn.
“Mattis was trying to protect Trystan,” Austyn said. “Mattis attacked me. I got in the house but he still wouldn’t get off me.”
Now, dressed in pajamas and a robe tied at his waist, Austyn sat in his wheelchair tucked in the corner at the end of the hallway. His left arm was bandaged from his wrist up to his shoulder as a different dog approached.
Challenging injuries for Austyn
Austyn was taken by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital following the attack. It took more than 13 intense surgeries and a total of 24 hours in the operating room for teams of physicians and nurses to save his arm.
Surgeons used muscle tissue from Austyn’s back to reconstruct his biceps. Without the specialized surgery, there was a chance Austyn could lose the ability to use his left arm altogether, according to Phuong Nguyen, MD a pediatric plastic surgeon with UTHealth who is affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“We borrowed muscle form his back, the latissimus muscle and skin that was on top of that muscle,” Dr. Nguyen said.
Austyn was rushed back into the operating room several days following surgery, when an artery in his arm damaged during the attack burst. The ruptured vessel put Austyn in danger of losing his arm, and possibly his life, to blood loss.
The surgical team reconstructed the millimeter-wide blood vessel.
“We borrowed some veins and arteries nearby to stack them on top of each other with the use of a microscope.” Dr. Nguyen said.
Several more surgeries were needed to remove muscle and soft tissue that were injured by the initial dog bite, including a vein bypass graft to improve blood flow to Austyn’s hand and a skin graft to cover the wound.
The surgeries were challenging but Austyn made time to smile while in the hospital. He celebrated his ninth birthday and went trick-or-treating dressed as Captain America.
“Austyn is one of the bravest patients I have cared for at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital,” said pediatric surgeon Allison Speer, MD, who initially treated Austyn in the Emergency Center and visited him on Halloween. “From the moment I met him in the ER, through celebrating his ninth birthday in the hospital, until a month and numerous life and limb saving surgeries later, he continued to be a strong, courageous and optimistic young boy.”
When asked about missing out on having his birthday with friends, Austyn joked, “It’s not how I had planned spending my birthday at all.”
Overcoming his biggest fear
Despite the challenges Austyn faced in the hospital following a traumatic event with a family pet, he still found the strength and bravery to extend his good arm and pet Dexter on the day he first met him.
A big smile filled his face.
“I know not all dogs are bad,” Austyn said as he looked up while petting Dexter.
Austyn said Dexter calmed him down. Austyn’s brothers watched from inside his room, behind their parents and grandparents.
Together, minutes later, the brothers asked if they too, could see Dexter. They, too, were apprehensive. Less than a month earlier they had witnessed their dog brutally attack their Austyn.
Austyn’s mother, Vannessa Clanton, was emotional watching her children overcome their fears.
“This is big for them and our family. We love dogs, Mattis was their best friend.”
Austyn is at home and looking forward to spending Christmas with his family. His family is grateful for the work of the nurses, staff and surgeons Matthew Harting, MD, Akemi Kawaguchi, MD, Matthew Greives, MD, Jessica Rose MD, Neil Dasai, MD, Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Speer.
They’re also thankful for Dexter.
“The hospital healed Austyn and Dexter helped us heal in another way,” Clanton said.