Decked out in her formal bandanna, Emma is one of the distinguished guests at the Best Friends Bash.
“She is an 11-year-old golden retriever who had surgery at Penn Vet about five years ago,” explained Erin Johnson, who is on the other end of Emma’s leash. “They removed about one-third of her upper jaw in order to remove a tumor.”
The result, a snout that ends a few inches before it used to, may look out of place in most dog parks. But at this event, canines and kids from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who have had cranofacial surgeries are the norm, celebrating their differences and enjoying a spread of pizza and popcorn.
“Any kids, all kids, really love her cause of her funny little nose,” said Johnson. “They ask questions about why her tongue hangs out. It is good. Just in terms of getting conversation started about being different is OK.”
Many of the children have more reconstructive surgeries on the horizon for congenital conditions ranging from a cleft lip to rarer genetic disorders such as Pfeiffer syndrome, which causes the bones in the skull to fuse too early.
The Best Friends Bash, inside an atrium on Penn’s campus, is a chance to put aside any worries about the future — and spend a few hours hanging out with friends, family and dogs.
“If you can see into the eyes and into the face of the children as they approach a dog and pet a dog, and you see the warmth that comes back and the interaction between the dog and the child, this is just something very special,” said Alex Reiter, who heads the Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s oral and dental surgery department.
Face painting, games, popcorn and pizza, along with plastic bowls full of water, are on offer. It doesn’t take a big budget to keep everyone happy.
“I think it teaches the children that there are other people out there that have differences, dogs in this case, and they can be loved, and loving,” says Dr. Scott Bartlett, chief of the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery at CHOP.
As toddlers warily approach some of the larger animals, 19-year old Alexis McGrantham sits on the side with her mom, taking in the action.
“I had my first surgery when I was 10 months old, and I’ve had a lot of reconstructive surgeries. And I’ll be having another one in September,” she said quietly. For her, the carefree dogs inspire a bit of extra confidence going into the procedure.
“I think I’m happy, too, no matter what I go through,” she said. “I’m happy, strong, and I can deal with any obstacle, and make a good ending.”
Other hospitals following suit
This is the fourth annual bash, and its success is inspiring other children’s hospitals to hold similar events.
“I think the kids are very compassionate, because they tell the owners of the dogs that their dogs are gonna be fine after surgery, and it tells me that our children are so well versed and confident with what we are going to do with them, that they feel like they can pass that on,” said Diana Sweeney, a parent liaison at CHOP. “It is really a win-win for everybody.”
Of all the four-legged winners on hand, Lily may take the top prize. The beagle mix survived a gunshot wound to her muzzle more than a decade ago. Surgeons at Penn Vet recreated a palate for her, and, while her face still carries the scars, owner Marcia Nordgren said she doesn’t notice them anymore.
“She has remained friendly, she still trusts humans despite what’s happened to her. And she just shows that we are all the same, we just have some variations,” Nordgren said. “But we are all the same, and the fact that she has such a great spirit. It has never gotten her down.”
That spirit seems to be contagious. It’s definitely rubbing off on these kids.