Skip to main content

Drs. Rick Pillsbury and John van Aalst, along with doctors from the North Carolina State University (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine, changed the life of a Bernese Mountain Dog that was born with a cleft lip.

Dr. Harold Pillsbury, chair of the UNC Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, bought two Bernese Mountain Dogs from Renate Buie, a breeder in Lawrenceville, Ga. Buie later called Pillsbury to see if he wanted to keep another dog of the same breed, named Henry, who had what most breeders consider a defect.

Henry, a playful and wild puppy, had a cleft lip, something that proves to be difficult for breeders when they try to sell their dogs.

“They were going to put her aside and let him die,” said Pillsbury.

In order to save his life, Pillsbury and Buie contacted Dr. John van Aalst, from the UNC Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, to see if he’d be willing to assist in a cleft lip surgery for Henry.

“I decided to do the surgery because it seemed the right thing to do. I do this surgery routinely in children and so decided that it should be relatively straightforward in Henry,” said van Aalst. “I also liked the idea of the challenge.”

Van Aalst called his contacts at the NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine in order to determine whether the surgery could be done there. In this process, van Aalst made contact with Dr. Kyle Matthews, a professor of soft tissue and oncologic surgery at NCSU, who also agreed to help with Henry’s surgery.

The decision to operate on Henry at NCSU was an easy decision for both Pillsbury and van Aalst. Pillsbury called NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine a “state-of-the-art facility.”

Both van Aalst and Matthews decided to use a variation of the millard flap procedure which is commonly used in cleft lip repair for humans.

“Dog anatomy is different from human anatomy; because of this, it was good to have Dr. Matthews available to discuss the case as we proceeded,” said van Aalst.

Because a dog’s anatomy is different, the cuts had to be carefully coordinated to match similar landmarks from one side of the face to the other side, said van Aalst.

The surgery proved to be a success. Henry’s face was completely changed after van Aalst and Matthews employed the millard flap procedure in his surgery. The morning after Henry’s surgery, Pillsbury claimed that Henry was “the happiest puppy in the world.”

The millard flap variation impacted Henry’s life, but it also may greatly influence veterinary medicine. After Henry’s surgery was completed, it was decided that the procedure would be included in veterinary textbooks at NCSU.

“I knew this would make a difference,” said Pillsbury. “Anyone with a cleft lip should get this surgery done. It will revolutionize the way surgeries are done.”

Henry is now back in Lawrenceville, Ga. to live with Buie.

Click here to watch a report on this story by ABC 11 in Raleigh.