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A New Face for a New Start

With chin, ears and nose reconstructed by surgery, Tosha McClintock can begin to heal inside and out from the deep wounds of domestic violence.

March 20, 2000|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hard as she tries, Tosha McClintock can't get used to her new face.

Her chin, which had been beaten until it was barely visible, feels full and heavy now, the result of a reconstructive implant. Her ears, which resembled cauliflowers from repeated pummeling, feel small and flat against her head, sewn closed, no longer bulging with cartilage.

And she can breathe out of her nose again. It had been flattened for so long--a favorite target of her ex-boyfriend's fists--that McClintock, 29, forgot what it was there for, what it had ever really looked like. She touches her new nose absently now, tracing over it, pushing on it. Sometimes she'll catch a glimpse of her profile when she turns to look at something, and she has to remind herself what it is.

"It's so weird," she said three weeks after surgery. "It's my nose."

After enduring five years of domestic abuse that shocked even the counselors and court officials who eventually helped her, McClintock was "the ideal candidate" for reconstructive plastic surgery, said her doctor, Michael Niccole of Newport Beach.

He offered to perform the $15,000 in procedures for free through the Magic Mirror Foundation, which he and several other Orange County surgeons created 20 years ago. Originally intended to give free plastic surgeries to poor children abroad, Magic Mirror recently began helping victims of domestic violence, who have sought surgical help in such large numbers they have overwhelmed other charitable groups.

For months, McClintock had been on a waiting list with Face-to-Face, a national program that specializes in plastic surgery services for battered women and offered through more than 300 doctors across the country, about a third of whom work in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties. Since it began six years ago, Face-to-Face--one of only a few programs of its kind and by far the largest--has seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications, said George Brennan, a Newport Beach surgeon who started the program with the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence while he was president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

More than 2,000 women have been helped since 1994, and hundreds more are on a waiting list at any given time, Brennan said. The numbers speak not only to the program's success, but also to the overwhelming need of the women to heal inside and out, long after they've gained freedom from their abuser.

"What we've found is cosmetic surgery gives battered women a much better chance of becoming whole," Brennan said. "Their bruises and scars are reminders of physical abuse, and their low self-esteem is a product of emotional abuse. The idea is that while this program rehabilitates their bodies, [therapy] rehabilitates their souls."

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who authored a series of laws that went into effect Jan. 1 expanding services and protections for domestic violence victims, said: "Sadly, there's a high demand for this service, and that is what I really want to work on, what we need to be doing something about. I do applaud the surgeons who are offering their skills to help these women heal. . . . I just wish we didn't need more of them.

"The FBI says domestic violence claims the lives of four women each day," Jackson said. "It is critical that these women have the resources they need and a system that will work for them."

About one in three of the estimated 1 million women battered each year in the United States who need medical care suffer injuries to the face and head, and McClintock, like many others, was told she'd be waiting awhile for a free surgeon who would give her a new look.

"I didn't want to be a beauty queen, that's not why I wanted the surgery," McClintock said. "I just wanted to look normal."

Niccole, who was contacted by one of McClintock's counselors, said that while hers was not the first domestic violence case in his program, it was by far the most severe.

"Tosha was so traumatized and scarred for so long, and now here we had a chance to help her start her life over again," Niccole said. "It was a brave thing for her to do too. Surgery is painful, and she'd had enough pain."

*

Her ordeal began six years ago, just after McClintock, then 23, began dating a 35-year-old business owner who soon hired her as a partner. The couple moved into an upscale condominium in Newport Beach. McClintock, who described herself as independent, strong-willed and "fiery," quickly fell into a cycle of abuse that escalated for five years. By December 1998, her face was disfigured, her head was shaved and she had not been allowed outside for nine months.

"I looked like an animal," she said recently. "I was waiting to die."

Three days before Christmas of 1998, she managed to escape, although McClintock now thinks her boyfriend may actually have set her free.

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