Doctors help woman undo damage of abuse

A changed outlook
Doctors help woman undo damage of abuse

By JENNIFER GISH, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The day slips away as Patti Monihan hustles her two young kids to bed, wrapped in the butter yellow walls of their Schenectady two-story.
She holds 7-year-old Samantha close, taking in the scent of freshly scrubbed child. She sends 6-year-old Michael to sleep, bending for a kiss.

She runs back downstairs, where dozens of eggs rattle and sweat in a large stew pot, destined for a giant batch of egg salad she’s making for a potluck at temple.

Tucked so snugly into the present, her past is as unsettled as the rolling bubbles on the stove.

Six days in the hospital, her abuser going to prison for seven years, finding God at a homeless shelter in Carlsbad, N.M.

Landing at a plastic surgeon’s office in an area she hadn’t visited in at least 20 years.

Today, she worries only about getting the egg salad ready in time.

And while the kids are in bed, Monihan spends the night peeling away shells.

Images of her old life come in flashes.

Her teenage daughter waiting in the shadows of their bathroom with a baseball bat, standing between Monihan and the abusive boyfriend, telling him to leave her mother alone. The loud arguments he started with her in front of her family and friends. The way he grabbed her when he was angry. The way he slowly drove her sisters away. And how she felt like she could finally breathe when he wasn’t there.

She was existing, but she wasn’t alive.

He questioned each move she made. He yelled at her when she was landscaping the back yard or refinishing antiques, the things she did when she needed something other than emotions to fill her mind.

Walking on eggshells would have been a relief. She walked on knives.

A final episode with him landed Monihan in a hospital room, six days blurring together to feel like 10.

She arrived, falling in and out of consciousness, with a severe concussion, a fractured skull, a broken nose, and a tooth shaved off at a diagonal.

Police officers stood over her. She’d wake to ask about her two youngest children, just toddlers at the time. Her oldest daughter, Alyssa, a teenager, was being confirmed in church. Monihan was missing it.

She felt her way into the bathroom, both eyes swollen shut from the beating to her face. She found the mirror with her hands.

She was forever a size 3, even after the births of her kids, and was particular about her hair and nails. She was competitive in a field where image was everything, where she drew highs from traveling to marketing seminars and getting promotions.

Eventually, the man who put her in the hospital also put her out of the job, showing up in the office one too many times, checking on her because he constantly suspected there was someone else.

In a fog from her injuries and pain medication, Monihan stood in front of the hospital room mirror. She used her fingers to peel open an eye.

And didn’t recognize the face.

She was married before, but she and her husband had parted ways after many years. This new man had been handsome and charming. She had two children with him, Michael and Samantha.

By the time she realized her new situation was a bad one, she felt trapped. They shared a mortgage. They shared children.

Michael and Samantha were still toddlers when he went to prison for assaulting her in 2001.

She turned to her first husband and they reunited. But within a couple short years, he died of cancer.

And she left Arizona for a new start in New Mexico.

For three months in 2004, she lived at Refuge Adonai, a homeless shelter run by Messianic Rabbi Ray Maccabee and his wife. It was an old service station converted into a shelter.

Nightly, she paced a 4-foot section of ground outside and cried while her children slept. She never could rest, the chores of the day weren’t there to occupy her mind.

Two small kids. No car. No home. No husband. Angry at him for doing it. Mad at herself for allowing it. Her kids suffered now, because of her choices.

Forty pounds overweight. Gray hair. No job. No tooth. Her successes in business meant nothing. This face was a lowly one. Who’s going to hire a toothless person?

The rabbi had been watching her for weeks on the cameras that surveyed the property. He asked her, a lapsed Roman Catholic since her father died, when she was going to make peace with God.

Rabbi Ray talked about forgiveness. He talked about restoration.

She arrived at Dr. Edwin Williams’ office that fall, after coming to the Capital Region with two suitcases and two kids just months before.

Memories of visiting here more than 20 years ago brought her to Albany.

A program where plastic surgeons fix the injuries of domestic violence survivors for free brought her to Williams.

Williams’ staff saw a quiet, unkempt woman with gray in her hair, two small children in tow. Her nose was crooked. She covered her mouth when she talked to hide her chipped tooth.

Williams began helping survivors of domestic violence back in 1994, when the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery paired with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence to restore the bodies of women while they worked to restore their hearts. Since joining the program, he’s seen one or two of these cases a year.

His office also referred Monihan to Dr. Harvey Winter, an Albany dentist who specializes in cosmetic work, and who is part of a similar program for domestic violence survivors.

Williams’ office checked into Monihan’s past, verifying her story and getting assurance that she was out of the relationship for good.

After several surgeries, and a year’s wait for the work to her nose to fully heal, her face was perfect.

She clamped Winter in a bear hug the first time she saw her new teeth. He’d never had a patient hug him so hard.

Her straight nose made it easier to look in the mirror again.

She started fixing her hair, having French manicures, looking more like a woman her age than someone older, though she doesn’t share exactly what that age is.

She still brings her hand to her mouth to cover her smile, forgetting that it’s all changed.

Now Monihan can blend in at Little League baseball games and at her job in retail.

The rabbi counts her among the success stories at his shelter.

“She’s mighty,” he says. “She’s mighty, and she will be able to help a lot of people in New York that have gone through that situation.”

These are the images Monihan has now — sharp, clear moments.

Hands linked to her children as they run through the nearby park.

A cool washcloth to soothe Michael’s playtime bump. Samantha’s perfect crayon rendering of a turtle. Glimpses of a restored face in the mirror.

She’s thankful every day now, gratitude offered in prayers.

And when night surrounds her sunny two-story, the kids in bed, the egg salad waiting in the refrigerator, there is peace.

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at jgish@timesunion.com.

Helping handsThe National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE

Dr. Edwin Williams

Years in practice: 15

Position: Chief of facial plastic surgery at Albany Medical Center. The medical director for the Williams Center for Excellence in Latham, Saratoga and Manhattan. Director of the fellowship program for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Education: Cornell University; State University New York, Buffalo School of Medicine; graduate internship in surgery at SUNY Health Sciences Center in Syracuse. Fellowship through the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery for studying cosmetic and reconstructive surgery of the nose, eyes, face and neck at the University of Illinois in Chicago Specialty: Facial plastic surgery On erasing the physical scars of domestic violence: “They all have the same story; every day it’s a reminder,” he says. “Every day they see it in the mirror, it’s a reminder.”

Dr. Harvey Winter

Years in practice: 24

Position: Practicing at Albany Dental Care

Education: CUNY, Brooklyn College; SUNY Buffalo School of Dental Medicine; fellowship in Dental Organization for Conscious Sedation

Specialty: Cosmetic, reconstructive and sedation dentistry

On cosmetic surgery: “When you change someone’s life, it’s a big deal,” he says. “A lot of people don’t appreciate the fact that a good smile makes a big difference.”

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