A Florida woman who tripped over her dog and landed on her nose was unable to leave the house for two years – after the cut became infected and half her face ‘fell off.’ Shelley Puchalsky, 39, said she was out running with her shih tzu Chloe in September 2019 when she fell face forward onto the trail and suffered lacerations to her nose and forehead.
Though the wounds were stitched up, they had trouble healing. She visited a plastic surgeon six weeks later to have a skin graft on her nose and forehead. The mother-of-two claims that things then took a turn for the worst, as an infection ‘ate away’ at her skin so much she had a gaping mango-sized hole in her forehead, which grew until her bone was exposed.
‘I went to a doctor who said he could help me, so he did a skin graft over my nose and restitched my forehead,’ Ms Puchalsky said. During the procedure she had a skin graft taken from behind the ear followed by around 20 stitches on her nose, and up to an additional 20 on her forehead.
She said that her wounds subsequently began draining the pus and never closed up and that the infection also ate through her eyebrow. ‘It was a botched surgery. In hindsight, I don’t think they realized it was infected when they put the skin graft over it and by the time I went back and let them know, I wasn’t taken seriously,’ she said. ‘Everything continued to become lacerated. My skin was just falling off the bone because it was so infected. It was terrible.’
Ms Puchalsky had a spot on her nose that had no skin on it, and the skin on her forehead was almost completely gone. The former realtor said that the infection became so severe it began ‘travelling’ up her scalp – devouring chunks of skin and hair in its path.
‘I looked like a burns victim. The entire half side of my face looked like it had been burned off and then the upper portion of my scalp looked like road rash because there was no skin or hair,’ she said.
Ms Puchalsky claimed that when she visited the plastic surgeon, her wounds visibly looked infected and they didn’t run any tests to determine if she had an infection. She was eventually diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a bone infection in her skull that can spread from the bloodstream or nearby tissue.
She then suffered sepsis, an extreme response to an infection that impacts 1.7 million Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also kills 350,000 adults annually. Ms Puchalsky then had a major surgery in February 2021 where she was cut from ‘ear to ear’ to remove infected areas. However, it then got reinfected.
‘I just knew that my face, myself and things were never going to be the same,’ she said. ‘I don’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I don’t look in the mirror a lot, I feel like the person looking back isn’t me.’
Ms Puchalsky’s incident is a degloving injury, a type of trauma in which the top layers of the skin are torn away from the muscle, connective tissue, or bone underneath.
The most common causes are usually associated with industrial equipment, such as in construction and farming settings, as well as car and motorcycle accidents. A 2020 study, for example, evaluated 188 patients with degloving injuries and found that 96 per cent were related to motor vehicles or machinery.
She has also been left with anaemia and autoimmune issues as a result of the infection. Originally from Delaware, she has been alone in Florida since last November receiving specialist medical care and struggles with isolation.
‘I probably didn’t go out in public for two years,’ Ms Puchalsky said. ‘I still don’t go out much, every now and then. I try to time it really early in the morning or late at night.’ She has also avoided seeing all but her closest friends in person for fear of what they might think of her face.
‘Only very close friends of mine have seen me in person. I don’t go out in public a lot because I’m embarrassed of my face, which is strange because I’ll show complete strangers on the internet,’ she said.
‘I’m very introverted about it because I still feel very wounded and protective because I’m still dealing with a lot of hurt because I feel like what happened, didn’t have to happen.’
Ms Puchalsky is now fundraising $30,000 for reconstructive surgery, which would involve having her forehead re-lowered to its original position, restoring volume in her cheeks, and fixing skin texture from scarring. She hopes to have it done before she and her fiancé of eight years, David Miller, 59, get married in December.
‘It would be a dream come true to have this surgery before my big day,’ she said. For now, Ms Puchalsky is focused on coping through the healing process. ‘I still have some days where I feel bad about myself but it’s a process. I feel better today than I did a year ago,’ she said. ‘I know that my face and the scars will heal over time, and will look better than they did a year ago, I just have to keep on having to tell myself that.’