Bulldog Tears Off Vet's Nose During Exam but She Doesn't 'Hold a Grudge' — Even After 3 Surgeries (Exclusive)

"I'm not a victim, I'm a veterinarian," says Christine Merrick after being bitten by a bulldog

<p>Michael Priest Photography</p> Christine Merrick with a patient

Michael Priest Photography

Christine Merrick with a patient

Veterinary oncologist Christine Merrick went to work on Feb. 8, 2023, expecting a normal day at the office.

The 51-year-old from Stamford, Conn., had been treating animals for 15 years. One of her patients that day was an English bulldog with lymphoma named Max.

“The dog was edgy. We all knew he was edgy,” says Merrick, who works at Katonah Bedford Veterinary Center, a 24-hour emergency practice in Bedford Hills, New York.

After the staff muzzled him to check his vitals and do a blood draw, they took off the muzzle, as was common practice at what Merrick calls her "chemo spa."

“I wasn’t afraid of him, so I would not muzzle him," she tells PEOPLE. "I wanted him to love it here. He would come running in the door because he would be so happy to be here for his cookies."

Merrick examined the dog, and was feeding him treats while chatting with staff in the room. “I turned my head,” she says. “I don’t know if he thought my nose was a cookie — but he literally bit off the entire tip of my nose.”

<p>Christine Merrick</p> Christine Merrick after the bite

Christine Merrick

Christine Merrick after the bite

Merick was rushed to the emergency room and got stitches. When she finally got home she started googling reconstructive surgery — but all she could find were breast surgeons. Her dermatologist connected her with cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon Oren Tepper, co-founder of Greenwich Street 497 Plastic Surgery, who met Merrick the day after the dog bite.

“He was like, ‘We can fix this,’” she remembers.

It was a hard time for Merrick, who was Miss Teen Connecticut 1990, and had worn high heels, dresses and makeup to work every day. “I’m not in scrubs,” she says. “I have spent a lot of time trying to keep myself looking like I’m aging gracefully — and then this happened.”

But after three reconstructive surgeries, Merrick is close to looking like herself again and is sharing her story to give others hope. "It means everything to be able to help others and let them know there are people out there who can help."

<p>Christine Merrick</p> Christine Merrick after one of her surgeries

Christine Merrick

Christine Merrick after one of her surgeries

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Tepper says he sees at least one or two significant dog bites a month. “It’s really common,” he says. “I wanted to give her hope. People can feel hopeless — but it just takes time.”

Tepper planned out the reconstruction with 3-D models. “We tried to be as strategic and cutting edge as possible,” he says.

The first surgery was February 28, when Tepper did a procedure called a “forehead flap.” He took a flap from Merrick’s forehead and attached it to her nose and left it there for three weeks to grow a new blood supply, he says.

<p>Christine Merrick</p> Christine Merrick after surgery

Christine Merrick

Christine Merrick after surgery

Related: Brooklinn Khoury Shares Graphic Photos of Her Nose After Dog Attack: 'Hard to Believe'

The second surgery was March 23, when he attached her new nose and detached the flap.

She had her third surgery this past January when Tepper did “fine-tuning,” adding some cartilage and creating better nostrils.

Merrick has a small scar on her forehead and a scar on her nose, but when she's wearing makeup, she says most people cannot see her injury. She is grateful for her surgeon's "artistry."

“My face was bitten off," she says. "I have my face back. But it’s because of him.”

<p>Christine Merrick</p> Christine Merrick after her three surgeries

Christine Merrick

Christine Merrick after her three surgeries

Related: Skateboarder and Model Brooklinn Khoury Reflects on 'How Far I've Come' Since Being Mauled by a Dog

As for the bulldog Max, he died due to his progressive lymphoma in early October. 

"I treated him during my two weeks back without a nose," says Merrick. "And I continued to treat him for the rest of his life."

And she has no hesitation about treating other animals. “I’m not a victim, I’m a veterinarian,” she says. “If a construction worker falls off a ladder, it’s not like, ‘Oh, he’s a victim.’ No, it’s your job. If another dog bites my nose off, then clearly I’m doing something wrong.”

“I don’t hold a grudge,” she says. “He was my patient. We’re all allowed to have a bad day. When a dog has a bad day, it’s just slightly different.”

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