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‘Might As Well Think Positive’

Madison Steates took a detailed look at some pictures a few weeks ago.

The Clinton Class of 2020 graduate, whose academic success led to her starting her freshman year at SUNY Geneseo last weekend, had budding professional reasons for wanting to see the photos. She enters the rigorous academic college as a biology major on the pre-med path.

What she saw didn’t horrify her. The jaw bone broken in half. Two teeth knocked out. A busted nose. An eyelid torn in half. An eye with damage so severe it was thought it couldn’t be saved. Puncture wounds on the throat that, a millimeter off, would have severed the jugular vein.

Steates examined the medical chart and photos with a scientific view and came away with a lot more understanding. “I didn’t fully process what had happened until I was home looking at my chart,’’ she said.

“Now I know why everyone was very concerned.’’

Steates was seeing the photos of herself taken at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse hours after she was attacked by a dog about a week before her graduation from Clinton Central School in June. Despite the serious wounds, and a six-hour surgery, Steates left the hospital four days later; the next week she took part in graduation ceremonies.

Her ticket out of the hospital was eating some applesauce to prove to the nurses she could eat; in the first week she lost 10 pounds as all food had to be ingested in her mouth through a syringe.

A week after the attack, she rode in the Seniors Parade around the village. “I was in pain and probably still in shock,’’ she said, “but I wasn’t going to miss celebrating with my friends.

“But I did go home and right to bed after the parade,’’ she said.

Her summer consisted of more surgeries, including a stent to replace a torn tear duct, as well as operations to make repairs on her mouth. She now wears braces to keep her teeth aligned until she can have implants once all her surgeries are done.

So either her winter break or spring break from Geneseo will be spent back in the hospital getting more reconstructive work done. The timing of the surgery depends on when she can get the braces off. “I’m trying to work my surgeries around school,’’ she said.

“It doesn’t really bother me,’’ Steates said. “I’m just so grateful for what has been done already.’’

Two months later, Steates looks nothing like those early photos. She has a few faint scars along her face and the puncture wounds on her throat still show.

But otherwise, the scrappy field hockey player for the Warriors can flash a smile and bite into food, two actions that needed weeks of healing to happen again. People ask her how she’s doing, Steates said, more because they know what happened and not because she shows signs of the trauma.

When she talks about what happened, Steates has more concern for her parents, Jim and Miranda Steates, than for her own involvement in the matter. “It was scary for me,’’ she said, “but I can’t imagine how it was for them.’’

She had gone to see a friend and the two were on the couch talking. The friend had a dog and Steates had given him a treat when she got there.

For about an hour and a half the dog paid no attention to her, staying on the floor chewing a bone. He suddenly got up and jumped in Steates’ lap.

“Nothing out of the ordinary happened until then,’’ she said. “I was trying to gently push him off and my friend called his name to get down. Then he snapped.’’

The dog bit her around the face and she’s not sure how, but they were on the floor with her friend trying to pull the dog away.

Despite the intensity and pain of the attack, Steates did not lose consciousness and retained a detached awareness of what was happening.

“I heard the bones in my face crunching when he bit,’’ she said. “I thought if this doesn’t kill me I have a very long road ahead.’’

As her parents were called, the ambulance took Steates to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. The initial assessment took just minutes to tell her parents their daughter had to immediately get to Upstate.

“It was really scary for them,’’ she said, “and they came to St. Elizabeth’s and saw me before going to Upstate.’’

She adds proudly that her dad drove to Syracuse in time to beat the ambulance there. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, neither parent could ride in the ambulance with her and had to see her one at a time at Upstate.

The first surgery went six hours. She came home stitched up in numerous places and her face so swollen and painful it hurt to touch it.

This also marked the first time Steates had to sit for hours without doing anything. That, she said, was difficult.

“I’m an active person and I wanted to get up and walk, even in the hospital,’’ she said. “The nurses said no, you need to sleep.’’

She found that to be true. Gathering with friends to decorate their graduation caps for the ceremony, Steates lasted about 15 minutes. “I said I have to head home and rest,’’ she said. “My body knew better than my mind.’’

Up until a few weeks ago her broken jaw - the bone was broken in half - and mouth wounds gave so much pain she couldn’t chew. It took weeks for her to expand her diet to soft foods and protein shakes.

When she could finally chew something solid, Steates opted for a burger. “I still had to cut it up and I can’t bite, so it was good but it hurt.’’

In the weeks after the attack talking was painful and she couldn’t turn her head because her neck was swollen. “Seeing the progress from then to now is wonderful,’’ she said.

She never thought about staying home this semester and putting off attending college. Whatever concerns her parents have, she said, they never wavered in supporting her to begin her freshman year.

“My parents always push me and my younger brother for a good education,’’ she said. “They want me to go and begin my life. Even thought with med school I’m looking at a lot of college, they encourage me.’’

She had thought about trying out for the field hockey team at Geneseo, but will limit that activity to a club sport. Her nose, which she broke in February in a game, probably can’t take another one, she said.

“My boyfriend jokes I should play and then I can be that person who broke her nose three times in one year,’’ Steates said.

She plays the viola and wants to try out for the college’s orchestra. Her time as a Clinton student prepared her for balancing academics and outside activities.

Steates left Clinton with 200-plus hours of community service. Much of that came doing volunteer work at St. Mary’s Church in Clinton. She also helped her dad and brother Matthew with fund raisers for the Boy Scouts.

After giving all those hours to help others, Steates now knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of community kindness. Good friend Wiley and classmate Gifford organized a GoFundMe page two days after Steates was injured.

To date over 400 donors contributed to help the Steates family with the ongoing medical expenses not covered by insurance.

Steates woke up from her first surgery to see the list growing by the minute. “It’s nice to know people care,’’ Steates said. “I and my family are so grateful. That we live in a community that would be so supportive and generous to help one person is amazing.’’

Most of her experiences since have been positive, and when not, she handles them. Early on, at a store to buy some items she needed to care for her facial injuries, Steates held her facemask in front of her, her face too swollen and sore to wear it.

A store clerk loudly told her she was not wearing it properly. “I showed her my face and said I just had surgery and couldn’t wear a mask,’’ Steates said. “There wasn’t a need for her to be rude.’’

Dogs make her nervous. “I am aware of them now,’’ she said, “and I assess the situation, where can I go if the dog reacts. I know it’s just another part of what happened I have to deal with.’’

She also learned she has a high tolerance for pain. She shunned the prescription pain medicine when going home and took an over-the-counter for two weeks before stopping.

At Geneseo Steates will live in a dorm with other pre-med students at the college. She and her new roommate have something else in common: both have ongoing medical issues that require surgeries.

“We’ve already talked about being each other’s support,’’ Steates said. “I think we will understand each other if one of us isn’t feeling great and needs some quiet time.’’

While saying the ordeal continues to take a physical and mental toll, Steates can list positive aspects she finds in it: having a better understanding of patients when she enters the medical profession, learning first-hand how the Clinton community takes care of people and growing closer to her family, especially younger brother Matthew, an entering sophomore at Clinton.

“He plays basketball,’’ she said, “and we would shoot baskets in the driveway and talk. It took my mind off of how I was feeling and felt like a normal activity.’’

Steates said she believes a positive attitude helped her be ready to start college on time. “It’s been hard but I know I will get through it by being positive and grateful for everyone who supports me.

“It will always be with me my entire life,’’ Steates said, “but I’m not going to make it the centerpoint or let it ruin things for me.’’

The full story is in this week's edition of the newspaper. 

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