Feature Story

Saundra Faces Forward

- by Alexis Quinlan


One in four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. And while statistics consistently show that it can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender, few admit the hideous truth. Fear and shame keep perpetrators, bystanders, and an estimated 1.3 million victims silent: fear of retaliation and shame about the victimhood. The drugs, alcohol, mental illness and PTSD involved in the worst situations combine to entrap many in battering relationships and to ensure that domestic violence remains one of the most chronically underreported crimes in the world.


Once in a while that truth is inscribed on the victim’s face, so stunningly obvious, so ugly, that no one can deny it.


Saundra, born in Korea to a family of 12, is such a case. After her father died, Saundra was adopted by a newlywed sister and her U.S. service man husband, and brought to Africa. There she was sexually abused by her adoptive “father.” Later, as a girl in California, Saundra was battered with increasing intensity by her boyfriend and then by her husband. It’s not surprising that she turned to drugs, solidifying the pattern of shame and isolation she was accustomed to.


All this helps to explain why, after a particularly brutal beating from her husband (on her 28th birthday, no less), she lay in bed for days, unable to care for her two children, simply medicating the pain of a lethal infection. An emergency room doctor had applied bandages and sent her home, stating she was fine. By the time someone saw her inflamed face and brought her back to the hospital, gangrene had set in—her flesh had begun to die. The infection and decomposition moved quickly and was rushing to her brain to kill her.


According to Saundra, “The first thing the doctors did was remove all the skin, muscle, and nerves on the right side of my face along with where it was spreading down my neck.  They put a tube down my throat so I could breathe. I was in a place where I was not feeling anything but waiting.” She remained in the hospital for five months. When her husband (now ex-) told the authorities she’d been mugged, she was unable to argue.


Where does a person go with half a face? This sort of worst-case scenario is difficult for many to see, much less deal with. In the ensuing twenty years, Saundra has undergone dozens of plastic and reconstructive surgeries, most of them pro bono, to literally create a face. Part of her tongue was used to create lips, and parts of her belly and back were used to build her cheek. For twelve years she wore a surgical mask and scarf with sunglasses to hide her very serious deformity. To this day, her right eye can’t quite close because there is no lower lid, so she is constantly wiping the tears away. Her mouth is so small that the dentist has trouble working on her teeth. And the right side of her face, having no muscles or nerves to animate it, always seems to drag on her head.


As it will, life has gone on. Saundra struggled with despair and drug addiction at the beginning, and had two more children without her family’s support. Yet she slowly began to heal with help from others who, as she says, “stepped up.” Sixteen years ago, after a catastrophic night when she endangered her children’s lives as well as her own, she moved to a live-in treatment center, joined a church and began to get sober, eventually giving up drugs and alcohol for good. A non-profit that donated reconstructive surgery ten years ago also sent her to school to learn a new skill, and she has been back at work ever since.


And still there is the physical pain, along with the emotional scarring.


“I don’t look at myself—ever—in the mirror; I’m not who I used to look like,” she explains. But vanity is the least of Saundra’s issues. “I get tired because my eyes are tired and I get embarrassed to eat and not know if there is food on my face, because I don’t have feeling there. Every bite I take I have to wipe my face three times. A meal that would normally take someone ten minutes takes forever. Usually I just wait till I come home.”


In spite of it all, Saundra is anything but bitter. “People ask me why I am not bitter about my ex-husband. This isn’t about justice. God will be in charge of justice. I have to move on for myself. That happened; I hope someday he will regret it. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of support, and a lot of surgeries.”


Face Forward

Though too few people discuss domestic violence, a world of help has emerged for victims of intimate partner violence. Every major city has at least one domestic violence center, and there are branches of therapy and law devoted to the scourge. And one class of helper deals with the nuts and bolts of abuse in the most visceral way: plastic surgeons.


As a young surgeon in training at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles in 1989, Dr. David Alessi began to see women whose noses had been broken, jaws cracked, and teeth lost. Occasionally he worked on facial burns, major lacerations and even gunshot wounds. All along, he intuitively understood that the scars and malformations were constant reminders of the abuser’s power, often lasting much longer than the relationship and adding to the trauma. He saw that a plastic surgeon’s work could help women heal on several levels.


As his private practice grew, Alessi continued to take domestic violence cases. But like many doctors, he was slightly leery. Not only were the costly procedures rarely insured, but the patients often had nowhere to go once they were fixed. This meant they often returned to the abuser to get beaten up again, and further scarred or disfigured.

And then he married Deborah, a beautiful, energetic Scottish woman who once ran a fleet of planes in Bahrain. Like many of us, Deborah Alessi has had her own run-in with intimate partner violence. “My first boyfriend threw me down a flight of stairs and pulled me around the room by my hair; I was fortunate enough to end the relationship but I knew I was lucky, knew that a lot of women don’t have that strength to leave. They can’t get the support—typical abusers isolate them so well.”


Keenly aware of the issues, Deborah questioned David, now a top plastic and reconstructive surgeon and biochemist, about his medical school experiences and about his pro bono work. She began tracking the cases and encouraging him to do more. Though David was willing, he needed support—the anesthesiologist, for one, is a serious expense, as are nurses and aides and the equipment and space for the surgery. Occasionally he could wrangle donations of time and energy, but that was a feat.


“Though 18 years had passed since my own incident,” says Deborah, “I was stunned to hear his stories. At last I had my ‘aha’ moment. These victims needed more help than one busy surgeon could provide.”


Meanwhile Deborah was learning about other kinds of support the women needed. First, they had to have confidence they could survive on their own. Otherwise, as David and his cronies had seen, they’d simply return to the scene of the crime. Second, they needed real preparation for the operation itself. Because there is so much bruising after a reconstruction, patients are inevitably reminded of the welts and black-and-blues bestowed at the hands of partners. The surgery aftermath can be re-traumatizing.


“I started researching and found there was nowhere for a woman to get comprehensive care from people who understood all these issues. That’s when I decided to form Face Forward, where we provide surgery with real preparation and follow-up.” Since 2007, the Alessis have sought out women who carry the physical evidence of past abuse, namely those with serious injuries from domestic and gang-related violence. Face Forward’s best potential patients have received treatment or counseling and now want one last thing to help them ‘face forward.’ (Though Face Forward also offers therapy and psychiatric consulting to patients before and after treatment.) The $12,000 operations has been paid for by donations from the Alessis and their colleagues and a growing number of fans.


Not surprisingly, they have been inundated with requests for help.  Deborah says, “When the Rhianna thing happened, my husband was interviewed on Entertainment Tonight and we had hundreds of calls—we’re still getting them. Meanwhile, presidents of banks come up to me and say, I was abused for fifteen years in a marriage.”


As for Face Forward’s next patient? Yes, it’s Saundra.


She’s an ideal candidate. After two decades of effort, prayer and help from others, Saundra is free of the cycle of abuse and drugs that entraps so many in the domestic violence cycle. She has been clean and sober for years, and works in accounting for an ad agency. She also owns a Habitat for Humanity home, where she lives with her son and youngest daughter.


“I’m so happy I can say, ‘That was then and this is now.’” She believes the next surgery will help her get more perspective, more distance from the disaster. As she has said, she has to move on for herself.


Moving on is exactly what Face Forward is all about. “With any reconstruction,” explains David, “the first goal is function and cosmesis is second. We won’t be able to make Saundra look normal, but we can improve her functions: her mouth for eating and dental work and her eyes for blinking and comfort. And of course we’ll strive for appearance.”


Saundra is delighted by the news. “I was losing hope that there could be help; and to have this come along when it was so unexpected. Any improvement is a big deal for me. It’s the bottom portion of my eye that’s constant trouble and he’s going to try to build something so I can close my eye to relieve the dryness.” He’s also going to add some muscular movement to her right cheek so it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging at her head all the time.


Saundra’s surgeries begin on the 22nd of July. As of now, Deborah and David are in the final preparations for Face Forward Foundation’s Gala for a New Beginning. To be held July 9 at the LA Intercontinental, the fundraiser honors Vanessa Marcil Giovinazzo, Daytime Emmy-winner for General Hospital and star of Beverly Hills 90210. Vanessa has worked against domestic violence since the beginning of her career, making no secret of the fact that her father was abusive to her mother and her.


The fundraiser, which will underwrite surgeries like Saundra’s, has big goals. “We want to be able to help women from all over the world,” says Deborah. “I want to raise enough money to buy a five-bedroom home so women can have a place to work on recovery on all levels.  We can set up an office and offer therapy too so that the survivors are healing on all levels.”


To donate or get involved, visit www.facela.net