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Smile On

Six years ago, a brutal attack left Melissa Dohme Hill near death — and impaired her beautiful smile. In this guest post on Focus, she beams with gratitude for her physician, who brought a smile back to her paralyzed face.

As a child and teenager, I was known for my big, bright smile and a silly laugh that accompanied it. It was how friends and family defined me.

I never could have prepared myself for the tragic event that occurred shortly after my 20th birthday — the day my smile was stolen from me.

In January of 2012, I was brutally attacked by an ex-boyfriend from high school, three months after breaking up with him because of his escalating abusive behavior. He stabbed me 32 times total — 19 times in my head, neck and face, and the remaining in my arms and hands as I fought for my life.

It is an absolute miracle that I survived. I suffered a stroke, and I flat-lined four times on the operating table.

Since that horrific night, and my miraculous recovery, I have dedicated my life to educating others about preventing domestic violence. My story has been shared in headlines across the world, and my biggest passion is speaking in schools with at-risk teens and domestic abuse survivors.

At left, Melissa poses for a selfie soon after her attack. At right, a few years later, she flashes her newly restored smile.

“I didn’t look like myself anymore.”

Although I am grateful to be alive every single day, it was difficult in the beginning of my journey to accept that the attack left me with right-sided facial paralysis. My big smile that once lit up a room was now drooping down — completely paralyzed on one side from the stab wounds. I couldn’t blink, raise my eyebrow or move my cheek or the corner of my mouth to form a smile.

I remember facing the mirror for the first time after the attack with tears streaming down my face. I didn’t look like myself anymore, and it was devastating. I found strength in the hope that my paralysis would heal and regenerate itself, within one year, which my neurologist encouraged me “could” happen.

Well, one year came and went, and my smile didn’t improve one bit. In a way, it got worse, as I developed synkinesis, the misfiring of nerves after trauma. I was experiencing involuntary and unpleasant facial movement. It was very uncomfortable, and I either avoided cameras or posed in a way that would hide my “bad side.” It bothered me so much that my smile was taken from me by my attacker, and it became a daily reminder of what happened to me.

Melissa with her team of doctors at Mass. Eye and Ear — Caroline Banks, M.D., Kerry Shanley, PA-C and Tessa Hadlock, M.D.

A Life-Changing Moment

My mom and I searched for a local doctor in Florida to help, but our search led us to Boston — right into the compassionate, dedicated hands of Dr. Tessa Hadlock, Director of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Mass. Eye and Ear.

My life was forever changed the day we met Dr. Hadlock. She was truly an answer to our prayers. We were amazed at her expertise, knowledge and understanding of all the advancements and treatment options for facial paralysis.

She evaluated me and set up a plan. We later learned of a program for survivors who have been disfigured by domestic violence to receive free reconstructive surgery, and I was accepted into it. It was the greatest relief and the most amazing news. I could really get my smile back!

Melissa, with Dr. Hadlock before surgery.

Over a three-year journey, Dr. Hadlock has transformed my smile — and also my life, confidence and happiness. She first implanted a small gold weight in my eyelid, which enabled me to close my eye to blink and sleep, providing great relief. I also started Botox injections for the involuntary movement to stop and to create better balance and symmetry.

Dr. Hadlock performed two major surgeries: the cross-face nerve graft and gracilis muscle transfer. She transplanted a nerve from my calf and a muscle from my thigh to my face.

After healing, the nerve on the paralyzed side of my face began to regenerate little by little. I have learned great patience through this process, as it wasn’t an easy or quick journey, but it has absolutely been worth it!

Now, a few years later, I look in the mirror, and I see myself smiling back again. I no longer see the girl who was attacked, but instead, I see a confident, empowered and happy woman smiling back at me.

Rather than letting the world change my smile, I am now committed to using my smile to change the world.

Thanks to Dr. Hadlock, I’m able to do just that.

About the Author

Melissa Dohme Hill is a Violence Prevention Advocate at Hands Across the Bay in Clearwater, Florida. She survived a brutal stabbing in 2012 after leaving an abusive ex-boyfriend. She has shared her story with numerous publications and television shows, including: People Magazine, 48 HOURS “Live to Tell”, 20/20 In An Instant, Inside Edition, the Today Show, BBC News, Fox News, CNN, Nancy Grace on HLN, Investigative Discovery and many more. In 2017, she married the EMT who saved her life.

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