REBUILDING Several years after a mugger smashed her face,and after a series of plastic surgery setbacks,Wendy Somerset is confidently moving forward.
A FACE, A LIFE
Red lights make Wendy Somerset's stomach turn. Maybe this time she wishes,other drivers won't stare or snap pictures.
Maybe today someone won't ask her whether she's wearing a mask or they'll say they love her stage makeup. Maybe today she'll be able to wave at a child without him crying.
Or maybe she won't go outside today. Outside, she shoves in her earbuds In ducks her head. At home,like a Phantom inside his opera house, she doesn't those second glances or feel that hurt.
A vicious attack during a robbery in 2006 left Somerset's nose with sinking pits where cartilage had disintegrated. Surgeries and a lingering infection further flattened her nose.
Instead of a full nose, a flat, gray, scared nub blemished in the middle of the 44-year-old Jacksonville woman's face.
She's had about six surgeries in the last year to create her lost cartilage.
Unlike the plastic surgeries seen in the movies or reality tv shows, the ones where surgeons try to create awe-inspiring noses, Somerset just wants a nose that won't be a magnet for stares.
"That would be lovely - to look in the mirror and see myself," she said. "I haven't seen my face in seven years."
Everything about Somerset's life changed in the years after her attack.
She lost her career but found another. She lost her marriage but found another relationship.
Despite financial difficulties and painful reconstructions, she senses her struggles are only a season in her life, and spring is just around the corner.
"A REALLY GOOD FEELING THIS TIME"
Somerset adjust her makeup bag to make more room in her hospital bag. Milk thistle, vitamin check, Listerine mouthwash check, Antidepressants check.
Days away from her May 14 surgery, she'd be soon leaving the operating room with a bulging spot between her eyes. It wouldn't be a finished nose, but it would have potential - like the foundation of a house.
"I really have a good feeling about this time. I'm not scared at all,
"she said. "I can start over and have a life again."
Her May surgery at UF Health in Gainesville removed cartilage from her ribs to create a new bridge to the existing nub of her nose. Another surgery in July will work on the bridge, and then later treatments will remove the black fuzzy hair on the tip off her nose from the skin grafts.
Even in the hospital people glance and wonder; What happened to her?
Somerset's nose collapsed after it had been broken three times within three weeks during winter of 2006.
The first two times were accidents - a tub of cherry blossom lotion falling from a closet, her husband's elbow while flailing in his sleep.
An armed robber soccer kicked her nose for the third and final break.
It was 9:30 on a December night, Somerset loaded ham, turkey and mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner into her car at the Publix on 2033 Riverside Ave, her car parked in a bustling shopping plaza bordering $1200-a-month apartments and shops selling $4 lattes.
A man strolled up to her car and calmly said he needed to take her Marilyn Monroe vintage purse.
What? She laughed. A joke, she thought. This guy is weird. You're taking what?
She didn't see the gun in his hand, didn't see he was serious.
His arm then went through her purse strap but she was grabbing the strap and pulling and she was begging him to keep her shop keys and please just give me my keys and he was slamming her in the pavement.
She remembers moments and glimpses. Her grip tight on the purse. Sharp pain in her face, the gun on bone pain of a pistol whipping.
A kick to the stomach. A kick to the face. The sound of running steps.
He never fired the gun he held, but the assailant did more damage than she realized.
Somerset went home instead of the hospital - she'd cancelled her health insurance weeks before to cut the overhead of her struggling vintage clothing business.
The next morning, she saw blood. It wasn't from her nose.
Somerset doesn't mention it when most people ask about her attack, but the fact of the matter is that she was seven weeks' pregnant.
She said the gore and the pain and physical loss that followed fails in comparison to what she endured the moment she miscarried.
"I'd had a few miscarriages, so I knew what they looked like,"Somerset said. "I wanted a child for nine years. I still think about it every day, but it's not all day, every day."
Soon after, she blew her puffy nose, and a gruesome cocktail of blood, cartilage and bone fragments came out and landed in her bathroom sink.
She grabbed ice packs and sat in her room. For weeks, she was dazed and depressed. She doesn't know why she didn't go to the doctor then, except that she was too focused on her growing isolation to remember to get help for her nose.
In 2007, a friend recommended that she see a plastic surgeon. He didn't work out, but started a process of several years to find a doctor to take her case.
When Somerset began her reconstructions in the fall of 2013, her plastic surgeon initially took a bone from her hip to create a bridge, but that became incurably infected just after New Years.
Somerset decided to start reconstruction again from scratch, beginning with a surgery May14.
She wrings her hands together, like she's trying to massage a stubborn knot, as she relives the last eight years.
She doesn't like talking about the attack. It happened, yes. But she doesn't want to waste emotion on remembering, on worrying about anything except what time to get to the hospital,what preoperative preparations To finish and what bills will be waiting when she comes home.
Talking about her attack could remind people to be aware of their own safety, she said, so it's worth it.
The infection that stole her last bone graft also stole her appetite for many months. It's tough to eat when your smelling decay every minute, she said.
Her weight once bordered on 130 lbs. now it's 112, her legs jut out of her flowing kneeling skirt like a stick figure drawing.
Curly hair frames her face. Golden locks accented with a few whispers of grey steam past her shoulders. When she smiles, her body relaxes.
Somerset crosses her boney legs and grasp her boney knees with her boney hands. She leans forward and turns her right arm, showing a tattoo on her forearm; a skull with a pink bow.
That's how she felt for a few years, like an empty skeleton. After her nose is rebuilt she plans to get a new tattoo of a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. But not until her transformation is complete.
Her battle to feel normal is far from over. These surgeries will be her turning point, she said. They have to be.
CENTER OF ATTENTION
If fist impressions are the opening act of any relationship, then her nose is the main character.
Smack dab in the center of ones face, there's no getting around it. The nose is a vastly practical-for breathing, smelling, and catching dust that would whoosh into the lungs- but that's not entirely why people value it.
Couples rub noses between kisses. Fathers pretend to steal children's noses. New mothers look at their babies and cry. "She has her daddy's nose".
Nervous interviewers even focus on the nose when looking someone in the eyes is to intimidating.
It's the safe zone between the examining eyes and the critical mouth.
UF Heath Surgeon Mark Leyngold, Somerset's Dr. says he's seen patients come in for nose jobs who have chunks of their noses missing from cancer removal or who's noses have been crushed by a can accident.
More simply their nose is too big, too small, too left, too wide, to imperfect to live with anymore.
They're hardly in the minority. A March report by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery showed nose jobs were 5th most popular plastic surgery procedure nationwide in 2013, with about 147,000 performed. Liposuction was first.
The idea that a perfect nose begets a perfect life is plastered across American pop culture.
Models pose for with their new noses, and shows like (Nip/Tuck) put the procedure on the home screen. Even though traditional tales, witches have crooked noses, misers have big schnozzes and princesses have slender but button-like noses.
From "The Bachelor" star Vienna Girardi gushing to U.S. Weekly about her "MR POTATO HEAD nose" to a 13 yr old girl telling ABC News how she got her nose job to stop her peers from bullying her, the little handful of skin, cartilage and bone in the middle of her face can cause so much heartache.
Some Leyngold sees are purely functional and help the patient breathe easier, but some nasal surgeries are to fix physical deformities that can have as much, or more, of an impact on a persons life.
"The majority of cosmetic patients are people who are self conscious about a deformity that they have that may cause them a problem at work or a problem at home that keeps them from living a full, normal life,"
Across the Internet, people plead with strangers for nasal reconstruction. There's the father who's nose was reduced to a hole and a scar due to cancer and is saving money for a prosthetic implant. There's a toddler who's nose is consumed by a golf ball sized legion and needs surgery to grow up without it being constantly puffy and red. There's the teen who is tired of being called "big nose" but can't afford a nose job.
Somerset told Leyngold she "felt like an outcast"
"She told me anytime she would be out, folks would point their fingers at her and make fun of her", he said. "I think anybody would be devastated if that happened to them all the time."
A NEW FRIEND
Somerset thought no one else knew how she felt. Then, she, met a short, plump man with a disarming smile.
He couldn't drive himself to doctors appointments or speak without mumbling, but when Scotty Gaston looked at Somerset's face, he just smiled.
Somerset and Gaston, a 49-year-old man with Down syndrome, became fast friends when she took him on as a client two years ago. She became a special needs care provider and life coach in 2010, now an independent contractor for Jacksonville-based Jmax Support Services, after her small businesses crumbles in the recession.
One spring afternoon, Gaston looked for the perfect green marker to form the letter "OZ," one that was bright but not too neon. He settled on a shamrock green.
Once he was satisfied, he handed the picture to Somerset, pointing to the spots he wants her to trim off with the safety scissors. She smiled and obliged, holding the printers paper like it was a precious Rembrandt.
"Be careful using the sissors, all right?" She reminds Gaston.
Being a caregiver is a far cry from her first career as a small business owner. Instead of managing inventory and stocking shelves, she tracks Gaston's diet and chaperones him on outings.
Instead of hunting down the most exclusive vintage, she searches for lost markers in the couch cushions. She's not a business partner anymore, but she is a video game partner. She's Gaston's carful shaver, caring ear and companion.
"She takes me out on dates and takes me to IHOP," Gaston said.
Somerset got her start in the vintage clothing industry as an apprentice at a downtown Jacksonville store in her late 20's. After five years, she'd saved up enough money to open her own store.
She opened Time Warp Vintage Clothing on Park Street in 2000, stocking the shelves with bell bottoms and 1950s prom dresses.
For a girl who collected decoupage pushes since she was 10, it was a dream career.
She and her husband held on to the business through the start of the recession, but competition ran them out in 2008.
In the vintage world,October
is the big month for sales because shoppers pour in looking for the most realistic Halloween costumes. When big-box Halloween stores came into town - with $20 ready-to-wear costumes - Somerset couldn't compete.
"It was the biggest, dream I could've asked for. It was my whole world", she said.
After living the dream for eight years, Somerset found herself back on the job market. Getting a job wasn't easy with her ever deteriorating nose.
Waitressing and bar tending jobs didn't call. Clothing boutiques didn't respond.
They never say why, but she saw it in their eyes. If managers hired her and put her in a store front, she might scar away customers.
" Bartenders and servers, you have to be cute, she said." " I used to be cute she said."
She searched for about Two years before finding an opening as a special needs at home coach.
She took on seven clients, visiting them to help them work on skills like hygiene and completing chores.
She was worried her face would frighten them, like kids in
"The Hunchback of Note Dame" hiding from Quasimodo.
"I want you to be prepared," she told the Gaston family. I don't want to scare you.
" It didn't bother us, and it never has," said Gaston's mom, Doris Bramlett.
When Gaston talks with Somerset, he looks her in the face and smiles. He gives her a three-second kiss on the cheek when she walks through the door. When she leaves, he walks her to her car and watches while she puts on her dealt belt, just to be sure.
He knows what it's like to be shoved aside because you don't fit others' definition of " normal." Gaston's extra chromosome makes his body a bit stouter, his forehead a bit wider and his mind a bit slower to process ideas quicker to feel joy and love.
He knows what it feels like to be told he's worthless because of a characteristic he has no control over.
" They see me for who I am,"
Somerset said of her clients.
Sometimes, she thinks about her store. She remembers the sense of purpose she felt when she worked there. Now, she has a new calling.
"Losing my dream was the worst thing that could've happened to me. " And the best thing." Somerset said. "Because I've be truly humbled. If that would've never happened, I wouldn't have been able to meet my special adult clients who have brighten my heart."
NO INSURANCE, NO BENEFITS
Somerset's July surgery is being scheduled. She's working on the itinerary and knows the pre-and post-operations.
The problem now will come during the months after she drives back to her Westside home. Somerset had a donation fund set up for her about six months ago. A friend held a benefit in her honor in February and raised enough money to get through her surgeries.
At least that's what she thought. The $4,000 of donations covered her cost of living for the first half-a-dozen surgeries, but now that Somerset has to start her reconstruction over,she's back at the starting block but no money.
She doesn't have health insurance. Since she's an independent contractor with her company, she doesn't get health benefits. She's tried signing up for Affordable Care Act Insurance, but she hasn't completed the process yet. Her surgeries are covered through financial aid by UF Health, but it does not cover medicines, primary care physician or other living cost.
Somerset started a GoFundMe.com account hoping to get money to pay for her nose.
She worked a full time job before she began reconstruction surgery in 2013, but once she began she cut that down to hours a week at$10 an hour.
"I literally have $10 to my name. What little I have is going in my tank," she said. " I scraped change out of the car today to get a cup of coffee."
After her May surgery, her doctor told her, she won't be able to work for a year. She stretch last donations as far as possible, but they dried up the second week of May.
Her new site on GoFundMe.com has raised about $400 as of mid-May, enough to pay for gas, medicine, and one doctors' appointment.
"I have to depend on other people's kindness, and it's so daunting."
WHAT WAS REALLY LOST
The police report from the day Somerset was attackedstates that only items of value taken were her purse and her checkbook.
The assailant in the grocery store parking lot stole much more. As bad as her nose is, her miscarriage burns in her mind.
She didn't know what holding onto her puse would cost her. It wasn't her keys she wanted-not at all.
She graphed for a tiny shamrock key chain, her favorite treasure her dad gave her before he died.
He picked it up decades ago, coming home from serving in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. A shamrock seems fitting-a little momento to remember how lucky he was to be coming home from the alive.
Somerset carried it on her key ring for almost a decade. She carried it when she went to her fathers funeral in the late 1990's. She carried when she opened Time Warp. She carried it with her when her marriage of 20 years fel into a passionless routine-like roommates not lovers, she said.
Somerset got herself a new key ring. She had that one with her when she met her new-boyfriend.
He talks her through stress, walks with her through stores to deflect the stares and worries about her while she's in surgery.
He tells her she's beautiful, just the way she is.
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