This story contains sensitive details surrounding domestic violence.
In November of 2017, after an afternoon of watching movies together, Theresa Gentry‘s boyfriend hit her in the face with a 40-pound dumbbell, breaking nearly every bone in her face.
“My nose was crushed. My eyes are inflamed because he broke the infraorbital bone, which holds your eyeballs in place, so my eyeballs had actually fallen down into the sockets. My occipital lobes, which are the bones around your eyes, were broken. I had three fractures in my skull,” she tells Allure. “You could literally see a depression in my face [from where he hit me].”
Faced with a devastating list of injuries, Gentry started to prepare herself for living with the reality of being disfigured. But while at a local support center for survivors of domestic violence during her recovery, she heard about a program called Face Forward that would change everything.
A New Way Forward
Face Forward, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, offers pro-bono reconstructive surgery to victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other acts of violence. The organization works with about 12 board-certified physicians who donate their time and skill to the most devastating cases — acid attacks, severe beatings like Gentry’s, even bombing victims from Syria.
The mission is personal for the founders, David Alessi, a board-certified head and neck surgeon, and his wife Deborah Alessi, a former aviation executive who experienced domestic violence in a past relationship. “I didn’t realize I was still carrying some baggage from that experience around. When I started Face Forward, it was very healing for me,” Deborah tells Allure. “I realized this was something kind of hidden — people don’t talk about it because there’s a lot of shame that goes with domestic violence.”
When the founders first started the nonprofit as a side-gig back in 2007, the Alessis thought they might take on one or two cases a year. But as word about Face Forward got around, they realized they’d hit a nerve. “The more we were out there, the more people came to us,” Deborah says. “I realized that there was a huge need.” Three years into the philanthropic side hustle, the number of patients applying for Face Forward’s help had tripled. “I realized I had to take this as a full-time job, beg Dave a lot to do a lot of surgeries, and get more doctors involved,” she says.
Today, Face Forward is a full-time organization, coordinating surgeries for two to three patients each month with a roster of volunteer plastic surgeons. In 2017 alone, that amounted to $1 million in care donated to 20 survivors.
The vast majority of the patients Face Forward treats — about 70 percent — are survivors of domestic violence like Gentry, many of whom have injuries even more severe. “We had one woman who was set on fire by her husband,” David says. “Her breasts were completely burned — she basically had skin grafts on her ribcage and nothing else. Her arms were completely fused to her body so she couldn’t lift her hands or arms or anything.”
After Face Forward performed several surgeries to restore movement to her arms, “she started crying because she said she hasn’t been able to comb her hair for the past seven years,” David says. “Think about it: you take things like combing your hair for granted, but you see these survivors and whatever problems you have go out the window. [Your problems are] just minuscule to what these people have to go through. You begin to realize that domestic violence has no socioeconomic or cultural bound. It’s just pandemic throughout the world — and something needs to be done about that.”
The remaining 30 percent of Face Forward’s clients are survivors of sex trafficking and other types of violent attacks. Like Andreas Christopheros, a 33-year-old man in the United Kingdom who was severely disfigured in a random sulfuric acid attack.
“On the first night, they didn’t think I was going to survive. They told my wife, ‘You’ve got to prepare,” Christopheros tells Allure. Fortunately, he did survive the night and made a full recovery. Considering his physical state, he’s shockingly upbeat about the injuries he’s been left with — scarring over his entire face and parts of his body and blind in one eye — determined to become an advocate for other survivors of acid attacks. “I managed to get past the emotional barrier and stand up and talk loudly and proudly about it,” he says.
This makes Christopheros a candidate for Face Forward, says Deborah. “For me, the most important part is selecting applicants who are going to do something great with their life, and not just use [these surgeries] as a tool to stay at home and not move forward,” she says. “We want to make sure that our patients give back.”
“Our work is about empowering women and survivors by getting rid of their scars and giving them the counseling, so they can go ahead and do something great with their lives,” David says.
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Christopheros (who has run two marathons to fundraise for other survivors in addition to his work advocating for survivors in the media) just received his first set of surgeries with Face Forward in January. “I had some skin grafts done to my mouth and nose,” he says. “I can breathe through my nose now, which I couldn’t before. So that’s amazing.”
More Than Skin Deep
Face Forward’s work is an acute example of just how profoundly outward appearance and inward health are often intertwined, especially “if you’re reminded what someone did to you every day whenever you look in the mirror,” Deborah says.
But part of that healing process — and this is absolutely vital to their work, the founders say — is treating the mental scars as well as they physical. Otherwise, “no matter what we do, surgery-wise, you’ll never heal,” says Deborah. “You want someone to feel whole on the inside and beautiful on the outside. And without therapy, that’s not going to be the case.”
To that end, Face Forward also works with therapists to coordinate mental health care for their patients, a holistic approach to healing trauma that Gentry says was literally life-changing for her. “When you go through a trauma like that, your head is just kind of whacked out,” she says. “To have somebody who looks out for you…I can’t even say enough about how much it meant to me. After everything I had gone through, they made me feel deserving as a human being.”
The Future of Face Forward
As Face Forward grows in scope, their work becomes heavier. Currently, Face Forward’s team of volunteer surgeons and therapists are working with two young Syrian refugees, both of whom suffered severe injuries from bombing and acid attacks. These cases, Deborah says, feel like Face Forward’s most important — and most difficult. “It’s just some of the most horrific injuries…” she says, trailing off. “We just do the best we can to reconstruct them and give them hope, so that they can go ahead and move on and do great things with their lives.”
For Gentry, she says that’s exactly the gift Face Forward has given her. “My self-esteem, everything, just came up,” she says. “It made me such a stronger person.”