Beauty Beast Beauty: A Tale of 10 Years
“Is there anything I need to know?” the facialist asks.
“Uhh… My nose is prosthetic?”
I see the next two thoughts flash simultaneously through her mind: Great, this girl’s nuts and I’m going to get a terrible tip.
10 years later it’s never less weird. I certainly don’t care that my nose is made of Gore-Tex and bits of my ear. But to a stranger, especially when I try to seem nonchalant about it, I come across as totally crazy.
So how does a girl like me come to own a waterproof nose? Glad you asked!
I was in a car accident. A friend and I were on our way to dinner in NYC at 9:30 pm on Tuesday August 3rd, 2003. We had just grabbed a cab on Central Park West and were making a left to cross Central Park when we were hit by an oncoming car. Those of you familiar with taxi cab design will recall that the divider keeping the driver safe from the criminals in the back (if you think my statement wrong you’ve never spent time in NYC!) is padded midway to the floor and Plexiglas on top. Not seat belted, I went face first into the Plexiglas.
The next thing I remember is hearing a nice woman talk to me. I was in an ambulance headed up to St. Luke’s Hospital. When I opened my eyes she seemed very pleased and asked if I could remember a word for her. “Raspberry,” she said. Then she asked me to repeat the word.
“Rathberrryy…” Why is my front tooth in the roof of my mouth?@#!...
Then I was being whisked into the hospital. I saw my husband, Matt. Told him I had so many dreams… Which is true. Being unconscious is really cool if you don’t mind that sort of thing. I had the most realistic, vivid dreams. He thought I was indicating that my hopes and dreams were gone. So sensitive that one!
Then the long hours in the ER began. I was in and out of consciousness for the first couple of hours. My husband’s family had hopped right into their cars and had driven straight to the hospital from Philadelphia as soon as they received the call from Matt. He had received the initial call from my friend who miraculously survived the accident unharmed. Another couple we were close with came to the hospital to be with Matt as well. I’m forever grateful for the support he had in those first hours.
After determining that my brain appeared unharmed I was put to wait in a surgical suite. They’d called in a plastic surgeon to work on me. At this point they allowed Matt and a few of his family members to see me. In the first round I was bandaged so they were unable to really see the full extent of the damage.
Later they let Matt in with his father and sister when my bandages were off. I have to say they had pretty good poker faces. I had no idea what my situation was. I figured my nose was broken, obviously my teeth were not located where they should have been and my lip was cut. Matt’s dad went to medical school and Matt volunteered for years in the hospital as a teen. He told me later that it was the worst thing he’d ever seen. The reality was my nose had been smashed into a hundred pieces and I was cut open from the corner of my right nostril diagonally down through the corner of my left upper lip. Cut so deeply that I had to have stitches in my gums.
The surgeon arrived around 1:30 AM. I think. At this point the endorphins had worn off and the morphine was not keeping me comfortable. Being awake while having my face operated on was no picnic. Being able to feel what was happening was horrible. I kept telling them I was in pain. The nurse informed me that I had reached the maximum allowable amount for morphine. Sorry. New York City is full of drug addicts and if I was tolerating that amount of the drug then I was probably one of them.
The doctor didn’t really know what to do about my tooth so he said he was just going to pull it back into place and cement it to the neighbor teeth. Sure! Why not? I’d tell you how good that felt but I lack an adequate comparable.
Needless to say I was in pretty bad shape when they finished up on me. It was somewhere around 5 AM. Matt returned with his mom and brother. I was trying so hard to put on a brave face and act like everything was OK, but seeing their sad faces looking back at me and every ounce of my inner toughness stripped from the surgery, I cried. I tried to wipe away my tears and noticed my arms and chest were caked with my dried blood.
Shortly after I was relocated to the residential wing of the hospital and allowed to sleep. Matt and his family came and went over the next few days. His brother gave me ice chips which I would have paid a million dollars for. When you can’t breathe through your nose, your mouth turns first to sand and then to cardboard. There were times I never thought my tongue would be normal again. The nursing staff and I discovered that Demerol seemed to keep my pain in check. I definitely never thought I’d willingly take a needle to the thigh!
Matt was with me later on that first day in the hospital and he asked me to promise him I wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Ok, I told him. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal - so of course, a few hours later, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t cry or get upset (they were probably spiking my IV with Valium). I was looking at this crazy monster- it wasn’t me. I would heal and everything would be fine. But from that point forward I stopped making eye contact with mirrors.
The recommendation was that I needed to find a plastic surgeon to fix my nose. We were referred to a reconstructive ENT specialist at Roosevelt. He wanted me back in surgery ASAP because my initial sew job was off and pulling one side of my mouth too high. He was going to cut me back open, re-sew and “see if there was anything he could do with the nose.” OK. I gave up thinking and just did what people told me, survival mode was in full effect.
The surgery was successful in that my skin was realigned more properly. He took lots of pieces of floating cartilage out of my nose but couldn’t do much for it structurally or aesthetically. He probably thought I was a lost cause so he referred me to another reconstructive plastic surgeon.
The blessing for me was the cab’s insurance company was footing all the initial medical bills. The bad news is that any good doctor didn’t accept their crappy insurance.
My best stroke of luck was Dr. Turk. He was a successful 5th Avenue surgeon who happened to have a teaching fellowship with a hospital in Brooklyn. Maybe a month had passed since the accident when we had our first meeting with Dr. Turk. Armed with photos of what I used to look like we had our consultation. He was the first surgeon we’d met who appeared to care about getting me back to that girl. We felt so relieved and excited! Great! Let’s do this! Now!
Not so fast sister. The first order of business was to re-open my left nostril which had collapsed after my last surgery… Then he could do the reconstruction. Much to my despair he wanted to allow 6-8 months before doing the nostril correction and another 6-8 more months before the reconstruction. No way! I looked like a card carrying member of the circus. “Sorry, but I can’t fix you with all this swelling,” he told me. The restrained hysteria he must have seen swimming in my eyes gave him the courage to move those timelines to the 6 month side of the window. January would be my nostril correction, June my reconstruction. At least I now had an end in sight. I can tolerate pretty much anything as long as I know it will end before I die.
We had arranged a trip for me to visit my parents in Portland. They had been unable to come to New York when the accident happened and they knew Matt and his family were taking the best possible care of me. I was so happy get to spend some time with them, but I was tense and anxious on the plane. A broken nose and jacked front teeth don’t sound all that bad, so I knew they had no idea that the face they knew for 24 years was gone. My mom picked me up from the airport. She was cool and collected and didn’t give any signs that my appearance shocked her. When we arrived home, my dad was there to give me a big hug. He had no such poker face. He looked visibly rattled but was trying his best to seem upbeat. Later I learned that he passed out twice within the first 30 minutes of my arrival. The only person in the world who thought I was more beautiful than my husband was, of course, my father. I can’t imagine seeing your child disfigured. The feelings of helplessness, that turn to anger, then to sorrow and back again.
I had lost my job as a bartender in a cool NYC nightclub. No hard feelings, but you can’t have ugly chicks behind the bar. They offered to have me come in to do some clerical work in the daytime. It was so kind of them but I declined. Matt was working in the resurrected gothic nightclub Limelight, now called Avalon. Fortunately for us, Matt’s manager whom we were both friends with: FLXX (New York City’s Gothic Barbie) (Seriously), gave me a job cashiering at the door. A real F* You to anyone who thought that freaks weren’t cool too!
Reality had set in though. The person who lived in my mirrors was starting to make me sad. Matt and I had been together only a couple years when this happened. For those of you who don’t know him, Matt is something of a physical anomaly. He’s 6’6”, buff, handsome and a ton of fun. He could literally have any woman in the world. Supermodels included. When we started dating I asked him why the hell he was dating me when he could have any girl in the city. He said because I was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. B.S., I told him… (Is this guy legally blind?! If so, then Yes. YES I am the hottest girl in all of New York City!!!) I was actually annoyed with him for saying that because I knew it wasn’t true. I was rocking Kramer hair from my pixie cut episode, I was 25 lbs over weight and I’m pretty in an above average way, but these women were stunning. The long silky hair, the mile long legs, perfect wardrobes and flawless skin. I was a kitten among tigers. And I knew it. My momma didn’t raise me to be delusional. She also didn’t raise me to value my looks above my intellect. I was the pretty, funny, chubby girl with a great personality. Later I realized that when Matt said I was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, it was because of the inner beauty I possessed. Gee whiz, handsome and deep. Better marry this one. So I did. :)
However, now I was definitely not beautiful on the outside and more importantly, my inner glow had dimmed drastically. I had a decision to make. I could be pissed off, feel sorry for myself, fall into a deep hole of depression and lose my marriage or I could pull myself together and continue to be the girl Matt loves on the inside. So I pulled it together and turned into a clown. I poked fun at myself, kept a smile on my face and worked really hard to be a great companion to my husband. If we wanted to be intimate we’d joke whether to grab the bag or turn the lights off. I could make the choice to not look into a mirror, but my husband couldn’t not look at me. I thank my lucky stars every day. 95% of men in his position would have left me. He struggled - don’t get me wrong. If your spouse came home one day with a different face how would you react? Your face is how people know you. Your face is WHO people know. They don’t know your hair or feet or arms. Your face is you and mine changed in the blink of an eye. My husband didn’t ‘know’ me anymore. I no longer looked like the girl he fell in love with. He had to learn to love a new - and very misshapen - face.
And I was also now a major mouth breather. Drooling all over myself at night, thrashing around because my whole life I’d slept on my stomach since sleeping on my back makes my arms fall asleep.
My front teeth were brown. I know. It’s like just when you think I can’t get any hotter - I do. I needed root canals and crowns on the two front teeth. BUT… Not until after my surgeries because the intubation process tends to knock out crowns. I wish I could say I cared or was embarrassed but I was so over myself by that point I didn’t.
There was one exception. While working at Avalon, a guy came in that I knew from my sales days at Reebok Sports Club. He was gorgeous. A model from some place in the Midwest and he had a major crush on me! For months he would drop in and flirt and I’d firmly reiterate my great relationship with Matt. He would look at me with what Matt and I refer to as “cow eyes” - just pure love and adoration. When he approached my desk I smiled at him and said Hi! There was a pause. I swear the world stopped for 10 seconds. We just looked at each other. He hadn’t recognized me. I could read confusion, sorrow and pity in his eyes. Then his friends whisked him into the club and he was gone. I’d forgotten what I looked like. Working in this big, crazy nightclub I was free to be whatever I wanted to be, so usually I was the old me. It was a sucker punch in the gut. In those early months I often forgot about how I looked largely due to my decision not to think about it. My heart felt so heavy I thought I would die. My reality had changed. It was a fact and I was going to have to face it sooner or later.
Time moves very slowly when you need it not to. Finally January came around and the re-creation of my nostril was imminent. Dr. Turk explained the procedure for this operation. He was going to cut some sort of passageway in my left nostril area and then take cartilage from my right ear to build the support for the tissue. A week after the surgery I would return to his office where he would make a plastic tube to wear in the nostril for 6-8 weeks so the passageway would not collapse. Yes it was white and yes it protruded from my nose a few centimeters. This was really a high point for me in the looks department. I took to parading around the apartment in a 1970’s hot pink house coat and a red elf hat.
Let me take this opportunity to tell you how much the cutting of the ear hurt. That hurt like heckfire! For weeks! Like someone is holding a branding iron to your ear, hot and stinging. And when it finally stopped hurting constantly, I’d forget about it and bump or roll onto it in my sleep - literally causing me to see stars. Of all the surgeries and manipulations of my face, that damn ear hurt the most of all. Never would have guessed that.
By April I began to lose it. I’d had plenty of time to start getting angry at my situation. I’d lost an entire year of my life in a time when I felt I was finally making progress toward a career I would love. That spring I had enrolled in an anchoring and interviewing course at NYU - and I loved it! I was the best person in the class and the teacher, who knew everyone in media, offered to continue working with me privately. That wasn’t going to happen now. The second doctor who operated on me told my mother in law “that’s never going to happen” in response to her telling him I was pursuing a career on camera. I was standing right there when he said it. I wasn’t even mad at him for it. It was something my subconscious already understood. But what would I do now? Matt and I had fallen out of love with NYC and
wanted a fresh start. After the reconstruction I’d get my teeth fixed and we’d start a new chapter of our lives. As strongly as I tried to stay positive and focus on the future, sadness was consuming me. I would drink every night to feel some sort of relief.
When May rolled around I was in shambles. I cried every day. Matt was struggling. There was nothing he could do to help me. My sorrow became so deep I worried that I wouldn’t make it to June. One Saturday night while Matt was at work I called my parents. I thought speaking to them would help me feel better. I was crying, trying desperately to feel some sense of peace. I’d wanted to always be strong for them so they wouldn’t worry but I was too far gone. I begged my mom to come visit. I needed a distraction. I needed someone who could anchor me to me. My identity struggle caused me to feel not just like a ship lost at sea but a ship that
didn’t know where it came from. The stranger in the mirror didn’t know Emily Reed. She didn’t have her memories, her laughter or her joy. This person didn’t give a crap about Emily Reed’s life. Matt didn’t see her, he couldn’t love her anymore because she no longer existed except in photographs or in his memory. I wasn’t Emily Reed anymore because I didn’t look like her. I’m sure it sounds crazy but a person is a face. Whether ugly or beautiful your face = you. Our eyes tell our brain who a person is. Our hearts and minds either love or loathe the person, but the eyes identify. Like the proper bar code tells the register something is a banana and not an orange. If I’d broken my arms in the accident it would probably have been a lot worse medically but I would still be me. I’ve spent years feeling so lost and frustrated because I couldn’t understand exactly this disconnection I struggled with. People are different around you. They don’t mean to be. They’re super nice but it’s like when you run into an acquaintance at the mall and you’re chatting, and 20 seconds in you realize they don’t remember who you are. It’s that glint in the eyes despite the smile and the nodding that you see they don’t know you. You’ve probably also been in the situation when the light bulb clicks, the eyes change ever so slightly, and they recognize you. You feel it, the recognition. I changed so much my own uncle introduced himself to me at a party.
The reconstruction finally came. I made it to the end. No small thanks to the California Wine Makers Association. Dr. Turk seemed really optimistic for a great outcome. My new nostril was holding up well, so we were a go.
The surgery had gone according to plan. Dr. Turk rebuilt my columella (the dividing piece that separates your nostrils) with pieces of cartilage he found floating around and he inserted a new bridge made of Gore-Tex. Yes, I’m waterproof. One of my many bionic attributes! And it wiggles. I'm a huge hit at parties. Because my nose had been smashed so flat, in order to make it rise up, or at least appear to, he made incisions on either side of my nose and shaved down the cheekbone where it meets the base of the nose to create the illusion of height to my new nose. This all sounded cool to me. I was completely purple and nasty, but when the bandages came off in two weeks I’d be good as new.
Two weeks later we are sitting in the office as Dr. Turk takes off my bandages. He’s looking at me from various angles, giving me (his work) a full inspection. He hasn’t gasped in horror so I’m thinking all is well. He asks if I’m ready to see and hands me a little mirror.
OH MY GOD. I have 3 HUGE whiteheads on my nose! I immediately attempt to pick at them and he says NO! I can’t just go poking and prodding on his work while it’s still fresh. I’m beyond obsessive and will squeeze pimples that don’t even exist so you can imagine my horror. Matt, less bothered by the zits, seemed…confused? Not unhappy or upset but he definitely wasn’t jumping on the couch. Dr. Turk explained that a nose will have swelling up to 2 years post surgery so the look of it will change over time. Truthfully - he worked a miracle on me. You can see from the pictures that I should have never looked normal again. He not only gave me normal, he gave me stunning. I wouldn’t be able to see, understand or even appreciate that for a few years.
The big shocker to Matt and me was that I didn’t look like my old self. I was a brand new girl. Again. Matt would later joke that he never needed to cheat because he got a new wife every couple of months in those first years! My nose was half the size it had been. The original nose was on the large side, but it was so distinctive I would have never thought to change it. Now, I really missed it. I missed me. I’d allowed myself to believe that after this surgery everything would be fine, that I'd be back to normal. Well, I wasn’t. This was fact sinking in very quickly. I had a new face and it was the face I was stuck with. No more “after the reconstruction” nonsense. This was it. This was me now.
Dental work started now and I will skip most of the details because they are so bad. This would go on for over 10 years. First I had root canals with crowns that looked like Chiclets. Two years later we had them redone by a cosmetic dentist so my front teeth wouldn’t look like those of a 9 year old boy. Those were beautiful. For $12K I suppose they should be. In 2008 one broke off and I would spend the next 5 years with one or both front teeth in a permanent state of falling out. If you want to look like you reside in a shack someplace near a swamp - take a front tooth out. My favorite time a tooth came out was during my brother’s engagement dinner. I’d gotten a glue job right before the trip and was being so careful. Since you all know I’m Karma’s Court Jester: out it popped, of course. I felt it come loose and turned to Matt. I just looked at him as tears welled up in my eyes. It was so humiliating. He gave me a big hug and said it would be ok. I was so tired of being a joke. But there was literally nothing I could do. I just wanted to be normal again. Whole again, not missing pieces and being bruised and stitched, feeling constantly under construction.
The cosmetic dentist had vanished (seriously!), so we had to save up another 15K to have both front teeth extracted and new crowns made. The old posts from the root canals were too short so even if we purchased glue from NASA, the teeth would fall out. The implants and new crowns will be finished sometime in 2013. Most people hate going to the dentist. They have no idea. I would rather GO CAMPING than set foot in another dentist’s office. If you have a worst enemy you want to put a hex on - this is your best option. Enough said.
After the “Chiclets” were installed by this crook, I mean dentist, in the Bronx, I mean HELL, we left New York City. The plan was to drive cross country to Oregon where we’d stay with my parents for a bit and then head down to Los Angeles. I love “plans.” They always work out.
Such a great month! My parents had moved to Portland after Evan graduated high school - and they loved it. They bought this amazing fixer on a hillside. We visited wineries, hiked, went to the coast, gathered goodies at the local farmer’s market and more. This was the most time I’d spent with my parents since I left Idaho. As a married woman it was so cool to know and connect with them on a level aside from that of their little girl. Matt made gourmet dinners and we sat for hours on the deck catching up on all the lost years.
Time came for us to say goodbye and make our way to Los Angeles. That didn’t work out. Surprising I know. We’d run our funds too low and our only option was to go back to Portland, get jobs and try to regroup.
Thus begins the darkest hours. Approximately 3 months worth of dark hours. Matt and I had both broken. There were many days we couldn’t get out of bed. This incredible, heavy sorrow had descended upon us. We’d left NYC, LA hadn’t worked out, Portland was proving a fickle mistress and I still looked like a person that nobody knew. The losses stacked up like cinder blocks on our backs and became more than we could bear. My mom had me put on anti-depressants. Matt found a psychologist to talk to. We were trying so hard to be OK and get through it. Some days it was like quicksand and the harder we fought to be OK, the deeper we sank.
This was our grieving period. More than a year after the accident itself we found ourselves truly mourning. Mourning not just my old face and the stress of the surgeries, but the loss of our lives and marriage as we had known them to be. We were starting from scratch. Jobless, dreamless, living with my parents, wondering if Matt would be able to love the new Emily the way he loved the old one. Living with my parents was tough because they had pictures of the old me throughout the house. Slowly and quietly I began taking them down and putting them in storage. I needed him to forget “her” so he could learn to love me. Matt comes from a long line of people who are absolutely convinced that change of any kind equals death. I bought Aunt Jamima’s one time and the earth fell off its axis. This was a fairly sizeable change and he was doing everything in his power to cope.
Time heals everything. Eventually we found jobs: Matt at a cool Irish Bar and me at Doggie Day Care. Oh yes. The owner asked if I was serious when she saw my resume. Oh yes, I assured her. I was so emotionally volatile I knew there was no way I could work with people. (Every time I pictured having a real job I kept seeing my self in jail for assault). I’ve always had and loved dogs so I thought it would be the perfect re-introduction to the world. It was pretty great. And hard too in ways I never would have guessed. In the large area with the big dogs, we’d have up to 30 dogs running around, playing, pooping, puking & fighting. If I was having a bad day or they were being bad I could yell at them - which happened often. But as is with dogs, they forget you were mad 20 seconds later and jump up on you and plant a fat, slobbery kiss on your face. I needed that environment of unconditional love to heal. As I got better, Matt got better and our love began to grow again.
I had another surgery the following summer to soften my scars and work on symmetry. Nostril adjustment, dermabrasion and a lip implant. Donald Duck would have been bananas for me!
The next 4 years proved incredibly challenging personally and professionally. We’d found our center again and were able to navigate our troubles well because they were never anything worse than what we’d already been through - kind of scary considering the magnitude of some of these “challenges.” OK, maybe one or two were a draw.
I’m so incredibly grateful to be beautiful considering what happened to me - and beyond lucky that nothing worse happened. People tell me every day how beautiful I am and I want to say to them that nothing is real. I wasn’t born this way. Please don’t be envious. I’m not what you think. I’m not even what I think I am because I still don’t know what or who I am. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, a crazy girl who stole a beautiful face. I’m uncomfortable in it because it isn’t mine. Technically I cheated. I know it isn’t my fault but it still feels illegitimate, like I don’t deserve it. Really, you can drive yourself insane thinking about it too much so I try not to.
Later I would begin my career in cosmetic dermatology. Quite by chance but it’s been the best thing that happened to me career wise. People think I’m good at it because I’m beautiful, but it’s really because I know how it feels to look in the mirror and be unhappy with what you see. It’s so simple, so basic. But I have that understanding and empathy when not many women my age do. And as crazy as this may sound - I care about people. I love helping women (and men too) feel good about themselves. There were so many people who were kind to me - friends, family and even strangers that impacted me and my recovery because of their kindness. My in-laws were incredible. I went from not even knowing them to being a protected member of the family. They were there unconditionally for anything I needed, any time. Honestly I would not have guessed it. I’m as close to them as my own family and it’s a relationship I feel blessed to have.
I learned a lot about myself too. Among my personal revelations was that I cut myself off from my good friend Christie [Atwood (Julian)] after our car accident in high school. She was thrown from the car and was messed up pretty badly, I escaped with a dislocated shoulder. I knew I distanced myself from her at the time but I never understood why until my accident when the girl I was with never contacted me again. And we were friends! I surmised that she felt bad I’d been so messed up and nothing had happened to her. And I wasn’t upset with her for it. It made me realize that’s what happened with me and Christie; I felt so guilty that she’d been hurt and nothing happened to me. I didn’t know how to be a friend to her without feeling ashamed. Why had I been saved? I’m not a better person than her. She must hate me. I know it sounds crazy but this is what I thought, and it crystallized during recovery from my own accident when people I thought would be there for me…weren’t. I never felt angry at anyone. We all deal with shock and bad situations in our own ways. It was my mountain to climb and I had to do it myself, no one could do it for me. But I will always be touched by the kindness I encountered on my journey and now do everything in my power to give kindness to anyone I meet.
I still struggle with the girl in the mirror. She’s just 9 years old now. Hopefully in another 9 I can look at her without feeling confused and frustrated and say “Hey Babe, you’re AMAZING!”
Matt loves the new face for which I’m eternally grateful. Our relationship is incredible. Going through this bonded us together in ways we could have never imagined. I’m truly the luckiest girl to have such a wonderful man by my side.
I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned, as clichéd as it is: Never judge or be cruel because you just don’t know what someone else has been through. I know people probably look at me and think I’m a beautiful, spoiled little princess whose toughest life challenge has been a hang-nail. Boy, wouldn’t they be surprised!
Thank you for reading my story.
Special thanks to:
Dr. John Allen
Dr. Jon B Turk
Dr. Kyung Boen
Dr. Simon Ourian
Dr. Christine Stanko
Dr. John Whytosek
Dr. Ericka Klein
Dr. Catherine Foote
Ruben Duany, Cosmetic Dental Tech Extraordinaire
Cabernet, Zinfandel & Malbec
Sort of :)