When Angela Sharpe’s four-year-old daughter was horrifically attacked by a dog she thought she would die. But after 10 years and 50 procedures Ruth Fowler, now 14, feels like a carefree girl again…
At first glance Ruth seems like a pretty, bubbly, confident teenager but unlike other girls her age she deals with the memories and scars of an horrific attack.
When she was just four a dog pounced on her and threw her around, leaving her with life changing injuries.
Her mum Angela, 45, thought Ruth was going to die as her four-year-old daughter collapsed in a pool of blood in her arms.
But after 50 gruelling trips to hospital over the last ten years the pretty teenager finally feels like an ordinary girl on the outside again.
“People wouldn’t know there is anything wrong with me if they just walk past me in the street. But I feel different to everyone else, I know I was only four but I feel like a different person because of my accident” said Ruth.
She was only four and at her aunt Ann’s house, very close to her own, on June 30, 1999, when the family’s Neapolitan Mastiff, Blue, attacked her.
Angela was running a bath at the time and Ann took was looking after Ruth at the time, only a few doors from her own house.
Next to little Ruth, Blue was a giant.
The dog was three foot tall and weighed 11 stone.
“Can I ride Blue? He looks like a horse” she had asked her aunt earlier.
But as Ruth sat peacefully in the lounge, absorbed in a colouring book, Ann went outside for a few minutes to hang laundry up.
Ruth followed Ann into the back garden and without warning Blue pounced on the little girl.
He went straight for her skull and dug his fangs into her head.
Ann rushed to fight the powerful dog off her little niece’s head but the damage had already been horrendous.
Ruth’s mum Angela remembers the scene like it was yesterday: “I heard Ann scream all the way from our house and ran over to find Ruth at the front door crying with blood spurting out both sides of her head.
“The sight of my little girl was like something from a horror movie.
“She looked into my eyes and said: ‘Look what Blue’s done Mummy’, before collapsing into my arms.”
Angela was given a white towel to wrap around Ruth’s head but it instantly turned red.
Her left ear had been ripped off and was hanging by a thread and her mum could see the bones in her skull through a hole in her head.
“I was sure she had died in my arms” she says.
In the ambulance to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Ruth lost so much blood she was close to dying. She was later transferred to Frenchay Hospital nearby.
The dog had very narrowly missed her left eye and doctors didn’t know whether Ruth would be left brain damaged.
Angela said: “I knew it was desperately bad, I just prayed, ‘please let her live.’
“It was touch and go for five days in a high dependency unit then we were told the doctors didn’t know if fragments from the fractures had gone into the brain. – She could easily have been brain-damaged.
“They said they had done what they could with the scarring.”
Ruth had to have a life-saving operation but it would be the first of many.
She was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and has had 50 medical and cosmetic procedures since.
Ruth’s head was fixed with skin from her thigh so she had a bald strip on her scalp.
Every Monday and Friday she would be in hospital receiving injections when she should have been with her friends in school.
The injections caused a large bump to grow on the side of her head.
Ruth had flashbacks and nightmares for years afterwards.
But in 2001 the local community in Hartcliffe, Bristol, raised £8,000 for Ruth and her family to go on Ruth’s dream holiday – Disneyland for three weeks.
Nonetheless as she grew up Ruth didn’t feel like an ordinary teenage girl.
“The bald patch meant I couldn’t wear my hair like I wanted, I couldn’t have plaits when we went on holiday and never wanted to swim in case people looked at it.
“At school I’d tell some of my friends I was going for operations but most people didn’t know why.”
Every morning Ruth would wake up a couple of hours early to fix her hair and makeup to hide the evidence of her accident.
“I couldn’t dye my hair when all the other girls at school did and had to hide from the sun on holiday – I felt so different.
“I’ve had boyfriends who were ok with the scars, others did not know how to react.
“But having scars has obviously made me who I am – they have made me a stronger person.
Ruth has had her share of judgmental and nasty comments and learnt to deal with some people’s ignorance.
“I’ve had people stick their nose up at me so I hate it when it happens to other people.”
“Kids tried to put me down and made me feel bad about the accident and scars, calling
me a freak or scar face.”
As Ruth sits with her perfectly groomed hair, manicured nails and immaculate make up, discussing clothes with a friend no one would guess that she is still haunted by a violent dog attack from 10 years ago,
“I have tried really hard to forget about the attack but even now I sometimes feel down about it and it stops me for a few days.
“In some ways I think ‘why me? Why have I had to go through all of these horrible operations?’ and having the scars has definitely made me a less confident person.
“But I also know that it’s made me grow up a bit quicker than I might have done otherwise.
“My brothers Danny Sharpe, 27, and Tony Fowler, 20 have become really protective over me and we are much closer, they are more like my best friends.
“I think my brothers and my dad blame themselves for Blue attacking me, because they feel like they should have been able to protect me.
“My mum has helped me a lot and supported me all the way, I don’t think I’d be this far without her – even though I know I can be a stroppy teenager sometimes!
“I’ve also had a great deal of support from the Clarke family who live across the road.
Dr. Antonio Orlando, at Bristol Plastics Surgery was the only surgeon to work on Ruth’s face from the start.
“I really want to thank Dr. Orlando and all the staff at Frenchay hospital were great.
“He was the only doctor ever to work on me, he moved holidays around for me – I don’t know where I’d be without him!”
This summer, Ruth underwent the final procedure to stretch her scalp with a “balloon” method.
This would get rid of Ruth’s bald patch and allow hair to grow naturally on the area. ***
The procedure, which took two months to complete, involved inserting a long tube with a surgical balloon into Ruth’s scalp. Every few days Dr. Orlando would pump a saline solution into the balloon to inflate it and stretch the skin.
When there was enough skin the balloon was deflated.
“This procedure was really distressing for Ruth, a large lump grew on her head and it was very uncomfortable to sleep on” said Angela.
“It looked like a second head, she wouldn’t go out of the house for three months.”
Afterwards she was also given a makeover and photo shoot at a professional salon, organised by a family friend, to celebrate the end of her operations.
“The photographer Shaun really boosted my confidence. I’ve never really felt very
pretty before and Shaun made the photo shoot easy and fun.
Her mum Angela is visibly proud of her daughter’s maturity and progress.
“Even after everything she’s been through Ruth has a good head on her shoulders, she’s very opinionated and knows her own mind.
She is still afraid of dogs and can’t bear to walk past the scene where the attack happened.
But now Ruth wants to take something positive from the experience.
“After the articles about me hit the press I’ve been contacted by some people on Facebook who can relate to my attack. One boy told me his best friend died after being attacked by a dog and he hasn’t been able to talk about it since, not even to his mum.
“It’s amazing to think that someone else can gain strength because it’s happened to me too.
Angela said: “I’m very proud of her, she’s quite ardent and headstrong but we always knew she had a lot of fight in her.”