Battered woman finds smile again

Associated Press
Julie Humphries holds her 9-month-old daughter Autumn at her home in Gillsville, Ga. Ms. Humphries, whose teeth were broken by her former husband, had her smile repaired by dentist Mark Sayeg as part of a program called Give Back a Smile.

GILLSVILLE, Ga. - The mangled face Julie Humphries saw when she looked in the mirror was consuming her life.

 

Afraid to show that face in public, she had become a loner since her husband kicked her in the mouth with a steel-toed boot. She dared not even reveal her mouth to her newborn daughter.

Her most natural expression - her smile - was taken away by a jealous and abusive husband. But she soon found it could be restored by talented dentists working with the Give Back a Smile program.

She arrived at dentist Mark Sayeg's Sandy Springs office in October, reluctant to show this stranger her teeth. He needed a "before" picture, but she would offer only a grimace that betrayed the slightest glimpse of her shattered mouth.

Over the next six weeks, he worked his magic, fixing her two front teeth, conducting root canals and removing damaged nerves to treat the pain on her damaged back teeth. Fillings replaced cavities, and next came veneers, which capped eight teeth.

A month later, Ms. Humphries's mouth had been transformed from a den of broken teeth into a picture-perfect smile. She had become one of the more than 550 women whose smile had been saved through the program's work.

It was started in 1999 by dentists with the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry who wanted to create a network where battered women could turn for dentistry help. Now it boasts more than 700 participating dentists and 100 labs.

Gunshot wounds have been erased, broken jaws restored, years of dental neglect reversed.

"We have no limits on what we're willing to do," says Laura Kelly, a Danville, Calif., technician who is the incoming president of the dentists' association. "Our smile is our natural communication, and it is also a constant reminder of abuse. By providing this service, we're changing their whole life."

Surprisingly, they struggle to find willing patients. Women's shelters tend to be rather skeptical about the free offers for procedures that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

For those that find out about the service, the criteria are rather stiff.

Before they start, the women have to prove they are out of the relationship and in a safe place for at least a year. They also must meet with a counselor or a domestic violence advocate who can confirm the injuries were caused by an abusive relationship.

Ms. Humphries was a perfect match.

She had married her husband when she was 16 and moved to Gillsville, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. Soon his emotional bullying turned physical. She broke up with him more times than she cares to remember, but each time she took him back, convincing herself it was best for their 13-year-old daughter.

He crossed the line the final time in the spring of 2005. She told him he had gone too far after he was accused of harassing another woman at the factory where they worked together. On the ride home, he tried to steer the car into a tree.

It got worse when they got inside. He started to hit her and when she fell, he didn't stop, kicking her repeatedly in the face. She stayed on the living room floor until he fell asleep.

Then she escaped, got a divorce and got her bloody face stitched up. And he got sentenced to about a year in prison.

The bruises would heal. But the mess in her mouth would not. A deep, dark depression set in and Ms. Humphries grew terrified of going out.

Her new smile changed that.

She landed a new job as a machinist at a local factory. She moved into her mother's house. She abandoned her fear of going outside, and she regained her confidence.

But her mother, Sue Morrison, said she noticed the biggest change might have come just after Ms. Humphries got her teeth fixed.

"That's the first time I had seen her smile at the baby," she said.

It still hurts Ms. Humphries to summon up the memories of what happened. She hadn't even told her dentist how her mouth got mangled until a few days ago.

But she knows she's on the right track.

"It gave me back my self-confidence I had lost," said Ms. Humphries, 32. "To have that back means everything."

At a convention in Atlanta last week, dentists and technicians from across the nation gathered to discuss the latest dental procedures and browse the newest equipment. One night, they held a ritzy banquet, and a dozen statuesque models trotted down the catwalk for a fashion show.

Then Ms. Humphries came out. She looked tentative at first. The crowd roared. Suddenly, the woman who could barely show her face in public was getting a standing ovation from a thousand dentists.

And she couldn't stop smiling.