Assault victim rebuilding her life

By

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — 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 say they love her stage makeup. Maybe today she'll be able to wave to a child without him crying.

Or maybe she won't go outside today.

Outside, she shoves in earbuds and ducks her head. At home, like the Phantom inside his opera house, she doesn't get those 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, scarred nub blemished the middle of the 44-year-old Jacksonville woman's face.

She's had about six surgeries in the last year to re-create her lost cartilage.

Unlike the plastic surgeries seen in 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 myself in the mirror and see myself," she said. "I haven't seen myself in seven years."

Everything about Somerset's life changed in the years after her attack.

She lost one career but found another. She lost a marriage but found another relationship.

Despite financial difficulties and painful surgical reconstructions, she senses her struggles are only a season of her life, and spring is just around the corner.

Somerset adjusts her makeup case to make more room in her hospital bag. Milk thistle vitamins, check. Listerine mouthwash, check. Antidepressants, check.

Days away from her May 14 surgery, she'd soon leave 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 have a really good feeling 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 later treatments will remove the fuzzy black hair on the tip of her nose from skin grafts.

Even in hospitals, people glance and wonder: What happened to her?

Somerset's nose collapsed after it was broken three times within three weeks during the winter of 2006.

The first two times were accidents — a tub of cherry blossom lotion falling from a closet, her husband's elbow 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 at 2033 Riverside Ave., her car parked in a bustling shopping plaza bordering $1,200-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 was through her purse strap but she was grabbing the strap and pulling and she was begging to keep her shop keys and please just give me my keys and he was slamming her to the pavement.

She remembers moments in glimpses. Her grip tight on the purse. Sharp pain in her face, the gun-on-bone pain of 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 her assailant did more damage than she realized.

Somerset went home instead of to the hospital — she'd canceled 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 she was seven weeks pregnant.

She said the gore and pain and physical loss that followed pales in comparison to what she endured the moment she realized she miscarried.

"I'd had a few miscarriages, so I knew what they looked like," Somerset said. "I'd 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's not sure why she didn't go to a doctor then, except that she was too focused on her growing isolation to remember to get help for her nose.

The cartilage supporting the majority of her nose was gone, degraded by the repeated blows. It would keep collapsing, and the only way to have a nose again was to get reconstructive surgery.

In 2007, a friend recommended a plastic surgeon. He didn't work out, but it started a process of several years to find a doctor to take her case.

When Somerset began her reconstructions in fall of 2013, her plastic surgeon initially took a piece of bone from her hip to create a new bridge, but that became incurably infected just after New Year's.

Somerset decided to start reconstruction again from scratch, beginning with a surgery May 14.

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 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 you're smelling decay every minute, she said.

Her weight once bordered on 130 pounds. Now at 112 pounds, her legs jut out of her flowing, knee-length skirt like a stick figure drawing.

Curly hair frames her face. Golden locks, accented with a few whispers of gray, stream past her shoulders. When she smiles, her body relaxes a bit.

Somerset crosses her bony legs and grasps her bony knee with her bony hands. She leans forward and turns her right arm, showing the tattoo on her forearm: a skull with a pink bow.

That's how she felt for the past few years, she said, 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.

If first impressions are the opening act of any relationship, then the nose is the main character.

Smack dab in the center of one's face, there's no getting around it. The nose is vastly practical — for breathing, smelling and catching dust that would woosh 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 too intimidating.

It's the safe zone between the examining eyes and the critical mouth.

UF Health plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Leyngold, Somerset's doctor, said he's seen patients come in for nose jobs who have chunks of their noses missing from cancer removal or whose noses have been crushed by a car accident.

More simply believe their nose is too big, too small, too left, too wide, too 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 the fifth 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 cover shoots with their new noses, and shows like "Nip/Tuck" put the procedure on the home screen. Even in traditional tales, witches have crooked noses, misers have big schnozzes and princesses have slender, button-like noses.

From "The Bachelor" star Vienna Girardi gushing to US Weekly about her "Mr. Potato Head nose" to a 13-year-old girl telling ABC News how she got a nose job to stop her peers from bullying her, the little handful of skin, cartilage and bone in the middle of the face can cause so much heartache.

Some Leyngold sees are purely functional and helped 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 person's life, he said.

"The majority of cosmetic patients are people who are self-conscious about a deformity they have that may cause them a problem at work or a problem at home that keeps them from living a full, normal life," Leyngold said.

Across the Internet, people plead with strangers for donations for nasal reconstruction. There's the father whose nose was all but reduced to a hole and a scar due to cancer and is saving money for a prosthetic implant. There's a toddler whose nose is consumed by a golfball-size lesion 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 fingers at her and make fun of her," he said. "I think anybody would be devastated if that happened to them all the time."

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 doctor's 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 business crumbled in the recession.

One spring afternoon, Gaston looked for the perfect green marker to form the letters "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 safety scissors. She smiled and obliged, gingerly holding the printer paper as if it were a precious Rembrandt.

"Be careful using scissors, all right?" she reminded 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.

Rather than hunt down the most exclusive vintage shoes or handbags, she searches for lost markers between couch cushions. She's not a business partner anymore, but she is a video game partner. She's Gaston's careful 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 20s. After five years, she'd saved enough money and worked up the contacts to start 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'd collected decoupage box purses 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, best dream I could've asked for. It was my whole world," she said.

After living that 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 bartending jobs didn't call. Clothing boutiques didn't respond.

They never said why, but she saw it in their eyes. If managers hired her and put her in a storefront, she might scare away customers.

"Bartenders and servers, you have to be cute," she said. "I used to be cute."

She searched for about two years before finding an opening as a special needs at-home coach. She took on several 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 Notre Dame" hiding from Quasimodo.

"I want you to be prepared," she told Gaston's 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 seatbelt, 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 slower to process ideas but 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 have been truly humbled. If that would've never happened, I wouldn't have been able to meet my special adult clients who have brightened my heart."

Somerset's July surgery is being scheduled. She's working on the itinerary and knows the pre- and post-operation routine.

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 her through her surgeries.

At least, that's what she thought.

The $4,000 of donations covered her cost of living during the first half-dozen surgeries, but now that Somerset has to start her reconstruction over, she's back at the starting block but out of money.

She doesn't have health insurance. Since she's an independent contractor with her company, she doesn't get health benefits. She 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 costs.

Somerset started a GoFundMe.com account, hoping to get money to pay for her new nose. She worked full time before she began reconstruction in 2013, but once those began she cut down to 10 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 myself some coffee."

After her May surgery, her doctor told her, she won't be able to work for a year. She stretched past donations as far as possible, but they dried up the second week of May.

Her new donation site on GoFundMe.com has raised about $400 as of mid-May, enough to pay for a tank of gas, some medicine and one doctor's appointment.

"I have to depend on other people's kindness, and it's so daunting," Somerset said. "When you don't have anything coming, it's daunting."

The police report from the day Somerset was attacked states the only items of value taken were her purse and her checkbook.

The assailant in that 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 purse would cost her. It wasn't her keys she wanted — not at all.

She'd grasped 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 seemed fitting — a little memento to remember how lucky he was to be coming home alive.

Somerset carried it on her key ring for almost a decade. She carried it when she went to her father's funeral in the late 1990s. She carried it when she opened the doors to Time Warp. She carried it when her marriage of 20 years fell 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 another man two years ago, her now-boyfriend.

He talks her through stress, walks with her through stores to deflect 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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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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