Agnes Wilson is one of those.
Married at 16 to Robert, her first love, she was
well-acquainted with her husband's violent side by the time their daughter Lena
was 13 months old. "He'd give you the shirt off his back when he wasn't
drinking," says Wilson, who now lives in Swedesboro. "Give him one beer and
he was a different person."
In the fall of 1974 she left him, taking Lena to stay at her
parents' Franklinville home. But she gave in to his plea to talk things over.
On the morning of Nov. 1, she was in the kitchen of their apartment after she
had told Robert she wasn't going to change her mind.
"He came into the kitchen with the gun," a 12-gauge
shotgun filled with birdshot, she recalled recently, and told her that if he
couldn't have her, nobody else would. Although he had threatened her before
with a knife, she didn't believe he would actually do this.
"I was fixing Carnation milk when he pulled the trigger,"
she says. "I had just looked away" - which she thinks may have saved her
life. The blast shattered one side of her face and her shoulder, causing
massive injuries. While she lay unconscious, he killed himself.
She was only 17.
She spent four months in the Hospital of the University of
Pennsylvania, where doctors began rebuilding her face in a series of operations
that would continue for almost a decade.
When she could no longer afford the insurance payments,
Wilson called it quits on the surgery and tried to come to terms with what had
happened. She had to face the fact that in her case, the scars would never
"Until about age 25 I had a difficult time with it," she
Right after it happened, she kept thinking she would wake up
one day and everything would be OK. For a while, she tried to cope by partying.
Other times, driving down the road, she thought of ending it all by crashing
the car. "But I couldn't do that because I had Lena," she says, gesturing at
her daughter, grown now and with a toddler of her own.
Eventually, she decided she just had to get on with her
life. She married again, but divorced years later. When nobody would hire her
as a waitress, "I looked for something that didn't require looks." She got a
job at a nuclear plant. When her eyelid wouldn't close properly, she learned to
sleep with her finger holding it shut - for 20 years. "You'd be amazed at what
you can train your brain to do," she says.
Last fall, Wilson saw a television program that mentioned
the Domestic Violence Project.
She called the hotline. Shortly after that, she was talking
with Pribitkin at Jefferson.
The idea to help women who'd been physically abused was the answer to a prayer for
Dr. Lori Hansen, an Oklahoma City plastic surgeon and one of the doctors credited
with getting the National Domestic Violence Project on track.
About six years ago, Hansen and her husband, assistant
district attorney Wes Lane, wanted to become involved in some kind of
missionary work. Both are Christians and initially thought in terms of
underprivileged countries, but Hansen, who is in solo private practice, didn't
want to leave her patients for any length of time.
"As we were talking and praying about it, it came to us
that we could do something to help others at home," she says. "But I do
plastic surgery, and I couldn't think who would need a face-lift."
When she drew up a list of her strengths - plastic and
reconstructive surgery, dealing with low self-esteem - she found she had a
perfect match with abused women.
Around 1990, working through the city's shelter, she began
offering free surgery to victims. ``About 75 percent of injuries are in the
head and neck area,'' she says. ``We treat those injuries . . . helping with
self-esteem from an appearance point of view.''
A few years later, Hansen, who is on the board of directors
of the plastic surgeons academy, mentioned what she was doing to Dr. George
Brennan, then its president, who embraced the idea of a national project.
Other surgeons who had been doing similar pro bono work also
wanted to see the concept go national, says project spokeswoman DiNardo.
Soon after that, the National Coalition Against Domestic
Violence became involved. As the largest national umbrella group, it offered
access to more than 2,000 shelters and anti-abuse groups, which in turn helped
to evaluate candidates for surgery and to offer counseling.
"The idea was to make it as easy as possible but still meet
some criteria to make sure it was battered women [or men] who were getting the
help," says the coalition's Smith. (A handful of men have been treated under
the program, mostly for injuries from nasal fractures.)
Generally, the battered person must be out of the abusive
situation before surgery will be performed, says Pribitkin, a national leader
of the project and one of three area surgeons involved since its inception.
"We don't solicit [candidates],'' he adds. ``It's important
for us and for them that they be responsible for their own progress.'' They
also must have realistic expectations of what can be achieved through surgery.
"It's a real grassroots effort,'' says DiNardo. ``We'd love
all our surgeons to be involved."
It's not always easy. Surgeons volunteering in the program,
says DiNardo, must get hospitals to donate operating-room time, staffs to
donate their services, other doctors or dentists to help free of charge, even
line up their own supplies - often donated by surgical-supply firms.
Nevertheless, says Pribitkin, there's been a lot of
enthusiasm. ``We're actively looking for more surgeons,'' he adds. With doctors
already operating in 44 states, ``our goal for this year is to get all states
attending counseling at People Against Spousal Abuse in Woodbury, Agnes Wilson
was ready by spring this year for new reconstructive surgery at Jefferson.
With Dr. Marlon Maus, an oculoplastic surgeon at Wills Eye
Hospital, Pribitkin worked on her eyelid, which caused tears to collect
constantly; and on her nose, which had started to sink in on one side. Using a
donated biomaterial called Medpor, they rebuilt her orbital rim - she no longer
has to hold her eye closed - and her nose to some extent.
Without the free program, Pribitkin says, ``Agnes' hospital
costs would have been well over $10,000.'' Jefferson donated use of all
Pribitkin plans more surgery soon to improve the function of
her eye, and to give her a tip to her nose.
Wilson is grateful to Pribitkin, and agreed to tell her
story so that other abuse victims might hear about the program and get help
For his part, the doctor is amazed at Wilson's strength of
"What's really remarkable about her is that she hasn't
become completely depressed or disenchanted, and has kept going despite the
massive injuries,'' he says.
Life has been upbeat lately for Wilson, a 39-year-old
grandmother who rides a Yamaha 750 motorcycle (and vows one day to own a
Harley) and adopts all the cats that arrive on her doorstep (13 so far).
She went to truck-driving school in Blackwood last August,
and - after finishing the long training run she's on now in the Midwest - she
hopes to land a trucking job on the East Coast. If she's lucky, maybe it will
even be with an outfit like United Parcel Service, which would keep her close
And on Friday the 13th of December, she plans to marry Hank
"I'm trying it for the third time,'' she says. ``I want a
real wedding this time. I want to get dressed up and have all my friends there
Copyright 1996 PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS INC.
May not be reprinted without permission.