Every time Melissa
Dohme looks in the mirror, her crooked smile reminds her of Jan. 24, 2012, when her former boyfriend enveloped her in “one last hug” outside her Clearwater, Fla. home, and then proceeded to stab her 32 times, leaving her for dead.
Dohme, who was 20 then, suffered massive blood loss that resulted in a stroke. In the emergency room, she flat-lined four times.
Most of the injuries were to Dohme’s face and neck, where damaged nerves left her right side largely immobile. Her right eye and that corner of her mouth droop slightly, her right eyebrow does not move.
But thanks to an unusual partnership between Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Massachusetts General Hospital that provides free or lower-cost treatment for victims of domestic violence, Melissa Dohme’s face, and her life, are slowly being rebuilt.
The two side-by-side hospitals have worked together since 2009 to provide care in 26 domestic violence cases, with Mass. Eye and Ear concentrating on eye, ear, nose, head, and neck injuries, while Mass. General has taken care of limb wounds and fractures, neurological problems, breast reconstruction, and scar revision. Most of the patients had multiple procedures.
The arrangement between the hospitals has been an informal collaboration. But recently, a team from each was assembled to formalize a joint program to provide a streamlined process for domestic violence patients and better community outreach to find them.
The teamwork began five years ago, when Missy Allen, manager of the Facial Nerve Center and Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center at Mass. Eye and Ear, approached James Heffernan, senior vice president of finance at MGH, and asked whether the hospital would help out on cases of domestic violence, which Mass. Eye and Ear had been treating for years.
Allen had been a board member of the nonprofit R.O.S.E. Fund, which works on domestic violence issues, and now coordinates Mass. Eye and Ear’s program for victims of such attacks. “Through the program I met so many people who had overcome unspeakable horrors but were optimistic and eager to erase, or at least change, the external scars of their abuse,’’ she says. “How can anyone not want to help?”
Conversations about domestic violence have taken over websites, media outlets, and living rooms across the nation recently following a graphic video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s February assault on his then-fiancee, in which he knocked her unconscious in a hotel elevator. Locally, in May, Jared Remy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the 2013 stabbing of his girlfriend as their 4-year-old daughter watched.
The two Boston hospitals have seen a range of injuries, some of them life-threatening. Instrumental in bringing the cases to her own hospital, Allen also got a positive response in 2008 from Mass. General.
“Our doctors have been more than willing to help when a case is presented,” says Heffernan. “If the patients have insurance, that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t have coverage for the kinds of things that need to be done, and there are sometimes services people can’t get access to.”
Under the new, more formal partnership, the hospital will treat up to 10 domestic violence patients a year, he says, as part of its commitment to provide free or low-cost care to those who can’t afford it.
From shelters and advocacy groups for battered women, Allen receives applications for medical care and shares them with Elizabeth Speakman, director of HAVEN, a domestic violence program at Mass. General that provides counseling, support groups, and other services to patients, employees, and community members.
Allen and Speakman screen the applicants and walk patients through the process, from registration to treatment. The hospitals say they will also accept male, child, and transgender cases of domestic violence.
Crusita Martinez was an early patient treated by both hospitals. She was 18 when her ex-boyfriend in the Dominican Republic threw a mixture of acid and urine on her face, burning much of it away. Her chest and arms were also disfigured, and her vision would never be the same.
In 2009, doctors at Mass. Eye and Ear worked on her eyes and rebuilt her nose from a rib covered with skin from her forehead. Martinez is awaiting an eyebrow transfer, and she has also been treated for her injuries at Mass. General. Now 31, she works in hotel housekeeping in Boston, is happily married, and has a 6-year-old daughter.
“I am so grateful to both hospitals,” she says.
Maureen Gallagher is policy director at Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts coalition of sexual and domestic violence programs that advocate on behalf of survivors. She says the partnership, with its ability to effectively treat complex cases, can play a major role in recovery. “It’s unique in Massachusetts, and it creates access to services that aren’t common in domestic violence,” she says. “For some people, this really helps them move on with their lives.”
Since April 2013, Melissa Dohme has come to Mass. Eye and Ear half a dozen times for facial physical therapy, Botox injections, laser treatments, and surgery to address the asymmetry of her features caused by nerve damage.
“I used to drool and food would fall out,” says Dohme. “I had no movement or feeling on the right side of my face.” This fall, she will also be seen by neurologists at Mass. General for nerve pain in her left shoulder caused by a stab wound.
She had never been to New England until a doctor in Florida told her: “I know someone who can help you. Dr. Hadlock. She’s the best of the best.”
Dr. Tessa Hadlock is director of the Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center and the Facial Nerve Center at Mass. Eye and Ear and the doctor in charge of Dohme’s care there. So far, she has implanted a platinum weight in Dohme’s right eyelid to allow the eye to close and performed surgery to lift the right side of her face.
On a recent trip to Boston with her mother, Joann, Dohme met with Hadlock to discuss facial-reanimation surgery that may restore her dazzling smile. It is a complicated two-stage process that involves taking a nerve out of her leg and stringing it across the face from the healthy to the damaged side. Later, a thigh muscle will be grafted to her face. The first stage is set for December.
Dohme’s case went national after CBS’s “48 Hours’’ did a show about her, “Live to Tell, One Last Hug,” which aired May 31. A nursing student at the time of the attack, Dohme has become a domestic-violence advocate and has 55,000 followers on Facebook.
In October 2013, her ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton, pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Dohme is now living with a Clearwater EMT who was a first responder after the attack.
She and her mother, a nurse, say they were stunned and grateful to learn that Mass. Eye and Ear would take care of treatment costs not paid by her insurance. “I was crying; I couldn’t believe it,” Dohme says. “I could never afford this.’’
John Fernandez, chief executive of Mass. Eye and Ear, is a supporter of the program. “From my perspective, it’s just doing the right thing,’’ he says. “I know it jazzes our staff to be able to help people who have been through tough physical and emotional trauma.”
For Melissa Dohme, her trips to Boston have made all the difference since that night she “walked outside to my own murder.” Now, she says, she can “see the light at the end of the tunnel.’’
“I never thought I’d get better,” she says. “But here, they’ve given me hope.”