Surgeons Give Woman New Face After Near Decapitation

Charity Face to Face offers reconstructive surgery to battered women.

March 15, 2013, 3:22 PM

March 21, 2013— -- Ilianexy Morales was in her 20s when she met a man outside her home in New York City as he was asking for directions. He was older, 38, but doting and generous, and they began dating exclusively.

He encouraged her to quit her job as a medical assistant and began to support Morales, her 4-year-old daughter and bedridden mother. But soon, his attentiveness turned to possessiveness and obsessive demands. She had to ask permission to leave the house and he would spy on her at school.

"There was no violence, but other things, like control issues, jealousy ... like who I would talk to," she told

That would change. Three years into the oppressive relationship in 2005, when Morales tried to break up with him, he cajoled his way into her apartment and stabbed her more than 100 times with a butcher's knife, partially severing her arms and nearly decapitating her, she said.

Morales survived after a month in a coma and seven initial surgeries -- one to reattach her arms -- and her former boyfriend is now serving a 15-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, she said.

But she was left with horrendous scars all over her body, especially on her face.

Riddled with anxiety, she couldn't even look herself in the mirror. "I didn't look like me," Morales, 30, said. "I would hide a lot. I felt really ashamed of myself even though it was not my fault."

But in 2010, Face to Face, a program based in Alexandria, Va., gave Morales her face and her strength and her dignity back.

The charitable arm of the American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), Face to Face provides about 1,500 surgeries a year to women in need in its National Domestic Violence Project.

"Ilianexy was critically injured," said Dr. Andrew Jacono, a New York City facial and reconstructive surgeon who took her case. "It wasn't just a simple scar. She was almost stabbed to death. She probably would have been killed if he wasn't stopped by a neighbor. He was going to finish her off."

Jacono donated his skills to perform seven hours of complicated "flap surgery" on her face and neck. The outcome was "beautiful," he said. "She's a wonderful person with an amazing spirit. It gave her a lot of confidence."

"It's really gratifying to help these women," he said. "Unfortunately, people don't realize how common domestic violence is in this country."

An estimated 1.3 million American women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year, about one in every four women, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Women like Morales, aged 20 to 40, are at the greatest risk

Jacono has since reconstructed the faces of women who have had acid thrown in their faces and those who are scarred by gunshot wounds. He was inspired to join Face to Face after doing a successful rhinoplasty on a young patient in 1998. She had told him her broken nose was the result of a car accident.

But three months later, the patient contacted him again. "She was crying hysterically, the nose was crooked and collapsed again," he said. "She revealed that her husband had done it in the first place. It affected me very much."

Face to Face's domestic violence project was launched in 1994 after public outrage over the O.J. Simpson arrest and murder trial. Even though Simpson was exonerated, the organization made a large donation to the Nicole Brown Foundation.

Until then, the group offered surgical services in developing countries, which they still continue today.

The board reasoned that battered women had many support services available to them for vocational and psychological rehabilitation, but not the surgery that is "the final piece in their rehab, allowing them to erase the memories of abuse physically from their faces."

The American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery also encouraged the cosmetic dentistry group to get involved because it was receiving so many women with broken teeth.

Doctors work with local shelters and psychotherapists to find women who cannot afford surgical services and associated facility and anesthesia fees. To qualify, they need to have undergone therapy and been outside of an abusive relationship for a significant period of time.

"We want to make sure that the patient is out of the cycle of violence," said Dr. Ed Williams, a facial plastic surgeon and clinical professor at Albany Medical College in New York, who has been involved with the domestic-violence program since its inception.

"We said, 'Let's take this and increase awareness and have a bigger impact,'" Williams said. "Domestic violence is not acceptable. Remember Anita Hill and how she changed the workplace? We can do the same thing."

One of his patients was a woman in an abusive marriage who had to have an identity change for protection after she left her husband. She had a rhinoplasty to fix a broken nose after she had established her new life.

"When you talk to these folks, it's amazing what a difference it makes in their lives," Williams said. "Whether it's a scar or a cheekbone fracture or a nasal fracture, every day they look in the mirror it digs up those emotions."

That was the case with Morales, whose life changed in an instant six days after she broke up with her boyfriend.

At the time of the assault, Morales was taking care of her mother, who was disabled from a stroke. A health-care aide came in during the day. Her boyfriend, a restaurant worker who also owned a fleet of taxis, lived elsewhere, but supported the family.

"Many times before, I would break up with him and we would get back together again," she said. "Sometimes, he would tell me, 'If you ever leave me, I will kill you or kill myself.' I never thought he meant it."

She got frustrated with the restrictions he placed on her and his "total control" and decided to leave in 2005. "But this time," she said, "it was for sure. It was the end."

But on July 1, 2005, her boyfriend called to say he wanted to stop by to give her one more check to help pay her bills. She agreed and when he arrived at the apartment, he asked whether they could go into her bedroom to talk, where there was more privacy.

"He started telling me how sad he was, and I was just using him and now I was leaving him," Morales said.

"Then all of a sudden, he took out this knife from his sock … he started attacking me immediately and didn't even give me time to react. I was in complete shock. I couldn't get out and couldn't do anything. He was so fast."

He stabbed her everywhere: her shoulder, neck, breasts, arms, stomach and even her vaginal area.

"The last thing he did was the face," she said. "I remember going in and out of consciousness."

The aide and a neighbor who heard her screams called police. He was arrested on the spot. Morales had cardiac arrest in the ambulance en route to the hospital. Doctors told her family she might die.

Since then, she has had more than 17 surgeries for her wounds, followed by physical therapy and psychological counseling. Once her pain medications wore off at home, she was in shock and denial and grief set in.

"I could easily hide the scars on my body, but the face was difficult to hide and not even make-up helped," Morales said.

"I was always strong and accepted what had happened," she said. "My main problem was seeing myself in the mirror. When I saw all the scars, I felt like I was looking at another person."

When Morales finally received her facial and neck surgery, she also got a new set of teeth. Every one had been knocked out in the assault.

Now she has begun to work as a professional makeup artist and now has a boyfriend, one who she says is stable psychologically and truly loves her.

"Finally, because of the surgery, I am able to appreciate people and life again," she said.

But Morales warns other women to watch for the "red flags" of violence. "If you are afraid of the person, get out, get help and go to a shelter."

"It's important to talk about it," she added. "Women are losing their lives, getting beaten every day."