- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A stabbing attack by a live-in boyfriend five years ago nearly killed Michelle Comeau and has left her feeling as if she’s the one being punished. Distorted nightmares of the attack haunt her sleep. She won’t wear V-neck sweaters on first dates because an 8-inch-long surgical scar runs from her chest to her collarbone. She still experiences a tingling sensation in the left pinky and ring fingers he almost cut off.

“No one will ever look at him and know he tried to kill someone,” Miss Comeau said. “Physically, I’m the one with the reminders.”

She has applied to a Connecticut plastic surgeon who is offering free services to help make those physical reminders disappear.

In increasing numbers, survivors of domestic abuse are taking a hard look at themselves and seizing on cosmetic-surgery programs across the country that offer them another chance to heal physically while they work on repairing the emotional damage.

Although Miss Comeau has applied to a doctor who is not involved in any of the national programs, he believes nonetheless that survivors of domestic violence deserve the same attention as the men and women profiled on reality-TV makeover shows.

Dr. Julian Henley, who has a practice in New Haven and New York City, has posted applications on his Web site (www.plasticsurgeon4u.com). About 10 women, including Miss Comeau, have submitted photographs and their stories. Only one will be chosen.

Miss Comeau’s three-year relationship with her boyfriend, Tjamel Hamlin, was on the verge of ending. The couple was in its New London apartmentthe morning of May 12, 1999, when she told him it was over. He exploded, stabbing her at least five times.

Doctorssay she lost one half of her blood.

Hamlin stabbed Miss Comeau twice in the chest, puncturing her left lung and hitting an artery near her heart. Doctors were forced to open up her chest to stop the bleeding, which left the 8-inch surgical scar. She also has a 3-inch scar across her right jawline.

“I still catch people sometimes who will look or stare,” she said softly. “Depending on the person or where I am, I will decide if I want to tell my story.”

Hamlin, who pleaded guilty to first-degree assault, was sentenced in August 2000 to a 14-year prison term suspended after eight years, said Kevin Kane, the New London county prosecutor. He is eligible for parole in February 2006.

A national program called Face to Face: the National Domestic Violence Project has helped 1,500 women since it was developed in 1994 by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. More than 300 surgeons are participants.

To be considered for surgery starts with a phone call to the program’s toll-free number. Survivors are screened to determine whether their injuries are a result of domestic violence and to ensure that they are out of the abusive relationship.

They are given the name of a local domestic violence shelter where they can meet with a counselor who, in turn, contacts the program to set up a consultation with a local member surgeon.

“I can honestly say that some of the most gratified patients are the ones with the most minor things. It’s not always something major,” said Dr. Keith LaFerrier, president of the academy. “We can give them the ability to look in the mirror and feel liberated.”

If these patients were to pay for the services, the cost could range from a few hundred dollars for minor scar revision to $10,000 for more complicated procedures, such as rhinoplasty, said Dr. LaFerrier, who has a practice in Springfield, Mo., and has been a participant in the program for 10 years.

A psychologist who specializes in abuse issues but is not connected with Dr. Henley’s office or the Face to Face project said it’s imperative that these programs involve counseling.

“If we were to only address the physical issues, then we’re not looking at the deeper issues of respect or safety,” said Barbara S. Bunk, who has a practice in Glastonbury, Conn. “It wouldn’t even be half the job if you did the surgery and didn’t really look internally.”

Carla Gibson, a 25-year-old Face to Face patient, is hoping to finally throw away the scarves she wears every day to hide the scarring along her neck. It was exactly two years ago that her husband repeatedly slashed her throat with a kitchen knife while her two young children watched, Mrs. Gibson said.

Mrs. Gibson, who moved from Maryland to New York City shortly after the attack, has been receiving treatment from a surgeon since December. The scars are less noticeable now — thinner, flatter and less discolored.

“From month to month, to see the progress … it just gives me a lot of hope,” said Mrs. Gibson, who works today as a secretary for a mental-health clinic. “The main thing is that I just feel ashamed when I see the scars. And I hate having to wear the scarves.”

Mrs. Gibson’s former husband pleaded guilty last September to attempted second-degree murder and was given a 30-year sentence that’s suspended after 10 years, according to court documents.

Dr. Lawrence Martin, a cosmetic plastic surgeon in Arlington Heights, Ill., recently performed work on a patient who was shot in the head by her enraged husband, the bullet just missing her right eye and hitting her temple.

“She is fortunate to be alive,” Dr. Martin said.

For Miss Comeau, who has moved back home to Mystic, Conn., to live with her family, the surgery is something she had always wanted, but could never afford.

“I’m 30 years old. I’m single. I’d like to get married someday. I want to live my life,” she said.

Dr. Henley’s offer is not limited to only repairing physical damage from abuse.

“Whatever I can do to make the woman feel better about herself, to improve her self-esteem, I want to do it,” he said.

Like the Face to Face program, Dr. Henley will select a woman who is no longer in an abusive relationship, one who is emotionally prepared to have the surgery. Counseling will be provided by a social worker from the Center for Women and Families of Eastern Fairfield County.

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