Michael Roberts doesn’t remember much of the attack that destroyed most of his right cheek, except there was no pain. The 12-year-old just remembers going into the bathroom afterward and staring into the mirror.
“My blood felt really hot on my face,” he said.
On Feb. 5, one of the family’s two dogs turned on the young baseball player as he was trying to break up a fight between them.
It was a traumatic night for the boy as well as his family: mother Vikki, 36, big sister Kristin, 18, and Jessica, his twin.
Today, Michael’s face will be reconstructed by Dr. Mark Sofonio, a Rancho Mirage based plastic surgeon who was on call the night Michael was taken to Desert Regional Medical Center.
REPAIR JOB: “I’ll have my cheek back,” Michael said. “I don’t want to have to have this hole in my cheek my whole life.” ‘
Sofonio, 36, a 1981 graduate of Palm Springs High School, didn’t want him facing such a life, either. That’s why the board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon stepped in to lend his aid. “Obviously, the psychological ramifications of losing half your face can be very severe for a child. Children can be less than forgiving when they see someone has a physical disability,” Sofonio said. “He’s a nice kid.”
Roberts’ family couldn’t afford the $20,000 such a procedure would cost, so Sofonio is doing it for free. The surgeon, who has kept close watch over Michael’s initial recovery during twice-weekly visits in his office, considered several surgical options since the attack. Transplanting parts of Michael’s back to his face was considered, as was inserting a series of saline-filled balloons beneath his cheek to grow new skin.
PROGRESS ALREADY: But as Sofonio hoped, the original wound has contracted to half its size over the past few months, removing the need to fill a gap with tissue. Sofonio will be able to remove the skin graft currently over the wound and use tissue from around the area to reconstruct Michael’s face. Sofonio has already repaired damage to Michael’s lip. “It’s going to grow as he grows,” Sofonio said. “It’s going to be from his own cheek.”
Michael’s family vividly remembers the night that the boy’s face was ravaged in the attack, leaving it with a softball-sized hole.
While Vikki Roberts was at a Little League meeting, Kristin and a friend were in her room eating and watching television.
TOE ATTACK: They heard a scream from the front of the house but thought nothing of it at first; Michael and Jessica were always going at it and making a racket, “But when we heard the gates fall we said, ‘Oh my God!’” she said. “We ran in there and we seen our dog Spot on top of Michael. It was real bad.” Kristin called 911 while her friend and Jessica ran off to get Michael’s mother.
A neighbor came over and told Michael to put a towel over the wound. Kristin told Michael to get away from the mirror. When Roberts arrived, the firefighters blocked her from entering. As paramedics brought Michael out of the house, his face was covered by a huge patch that blocked her view of the wound. She didn’t get the full impact until later at the hospital. “I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t want Michael to see me crying,” she said.
“The worst is, it was my dog mac did it to him. My dog.” Spot, a mutt, was just a skin-and-bones puppy when he came to them in Sky Valley. He’d lived with the family for eight years and had never bitten anyone before. He’d always tussled with Brodie, the family’s pug, so there was no reason for anyone to think that breaking up their latest encounter would be “If he’s done it once, he’s done it thousands of times,” Roberts said. “Get Brodie away from the big dog.”
“I guess that night Spot said he had enough,” Kristin added. “I don’t think he wanted to bite me,” Michael said. “He was getting old and getting crazy.”
POST-OPERATIVE LOOK: That night after the initial surgery, Michael asked for two things: a mirror, and assurances that the index finger on his right hand, also bitten in the attack, wouldn’t interfere with his ability to play catcher, right field and second base for the Desert Hot Springs Rangers.
“Dr. Sofonio kept asking him what he thought he would see. He made sure he understood what was going on,” Roberts said. “Only after he was absolutely satisfied did I give him the mirror. Dr. Sofonio has been extra great. Without him, I don’t know what I would have done. I can’t say enough for that man. There aren’t enough thank yous in the world for him,” Spot, taken away by animal control, was put to sleep 11 days after the attack.
Dr. Mark V. Sofonio