By David Rosenfeld
From almost the moment she was released from the hospital, Audrey Mabrey became an advocate for victims of domestic violence. Four years ago at age 26, her estranged husband in Florida beat her up, doused her with gasoline and lit her on fire causing burns to 80 percent of her body.
Following 18 months of traumatic surgeries, Mabrey emerged knowing her disfigurement was so shocking that people would listen to what she had to say. And she was right.
In public appearances and television interviews she spoke with confidence, but her injuries caused the skin to physically pull her head down. It was plastic surgeon Dr. David Alessi and his wife Deborah Alessi, who head the Santa Monica non-profit Face Forward, which literally gave Mabrey the ability to hold her head up high again.
“From the minute this happened to me I held my head up and became an advocate almost immediately afterward,” Mabrey said. “So by doing that emotionally and mentally I was holding my head high but I physically could not hold my head up, so they gave me that. It’s an amazing adventure and journey. To me they’re just angels on earth.”
Like each of the 10 women the organization treats each year, Mabrey discovered there’s few other groups like it in the country that provide reconstructive surgery to victims of domestic violence. They flew Mabrey and her family from Florida, put them up in a hotel to perform surgery worth tens of thousands of dollars. A nurse is then provided up to 72 hours after each procedure. In Mabrey’s case, as often the story, that’s round one. One patient has undergone 26 procedures by Dr. Alessi at absolutely no charge.
“As opposed to giving them a hand out, we give a hand up to all our survivors,” Dr. Alessi said proudly. “And so if there’s something that’s keeping them from progressing, they have these physical scars, than we’ll take care of them.”
In addition, the Alessi’s share a firm belief that without treating the whole person, including whatever mental scars they might be carrying, you haven’t really treated them at all. And that’s what sets them apart from nearly everyone else.
“There’s nothing better than helping somebody like that especially when you see them becoming successful and giving back into society,” Dr. Alessi said from his office in Beverly Hills. “It’s really what philanthropy should be all about. Because you not only want to help people but help them contribute to society so they can help the next person.”
Alessi performs most of the surgeries at nearby Specialty Surgery Center. He also relies on a dental surgeon and two anesthesiologists that donate services. While they have tried to include other physicians, they say it’s difficult to get firm commitments. While surgery makes up the most significant part of the organization’s mission, it amounts to a small fraction of the actual time it takes to help these survivors. The nearly round-the-clock job of logistics and outreach fall on Deborah Alessi, who’s impetus really started the group.
For Michelle Fox, who lived with disfigurement for almost four decades since she was 24 years old, the surgeries provided by Face Forward brought her confidence back. Even famous doctors Fox consulted refused to address the most challenging part of what was required, but she said Dr. Alessi went straight at the problem.
“It has given me a lot more power. I feel stronger, way more confident and capable. I just love them both so much, ,” said Fox, who suffered a head-on collision and was kicked in the head by a horse. “I’m really one of the people who have been so blessed by knowing them. I had this disfigurement for all these years. Doctors were afraid to touch it and they wanted a lot of money. I felt trapped by it.”
Dr. Alessi had always been the type of surgeon who did a significant amount of charity work. As the chief of head and neck surgery at Cedar Sinai Medical Center, he was often referred patients who were uninsured. But it wasn’t until starting his own institute for facial plastic surgery and meeting his wife Deborah that changed both his life and the dozens of women they’ve been able to treat ever since.
“It was my lovely wife who had the idea that if you’re helping these people with all their scars and you’re sending them back out you’re not necessarily dong anything,” he said. “You really need a whole organization to get them rehabilitated and get them back into society. “
Deborah, who was partly led by a personal experience with an abusive boyfriend at a young age, wanted to start the non-profit and take their philanthropy a step forward. She was selling private jets and had a background in marketing at the time she met David.
“I think it’s hard to move forward when you’re disfigured,” Deborah said. “We’re a team, so it would be terrible if we didn’t give back. I’m the marketing person and he’s the surgeon. When you put it together it can change someone’s life. You can see the darkness in their eyes and then the light. And when you see that it’s really overwhelming.”
We caught up to the couple at Dr. Alessi’s office in Beverly Hills during an unusually calm period for the busy doctor. He had just met hours earlier with a possible new patient, a woman who was severely beaten by her boyfriend.
“Can you help her,” Deborah asks.
“I think so,” says the doctor. “One eye’s here and the other one is down there. He broke both eye sockets, caused a hemorrhage in brain, broken jaw and broken nose. She’s a little batty. She needs a good psych screening and a good drug screening, just want to make sure no coke or heroine.”
No illicit drug use and being free of the abusive relationship for at least a year are two of the only requirements for getting accepted into the program. Before starting the group, they never realized the demand that was out there. During an episode of Entertainment Tonight that mentioned the Alessi’s, they received more than 100 phone calls the next day. By far the most amazing thing has been the testament they’ve experienced to the human spirit.
“It’s just wonderful to see that no matter how badly someone tries to beat the spirit out of somebody you can just do some really minor surgeries and bring their heart back out,” Dr. Alessi said.
Recently a woman came to visit him who was so severely beaten and disfigured there was really nothing he could do. She said she wasn’t looking for any help, just wanted to meet him and share her story.
“She said, ‘Dr. I’m the luckiest person in the whole world.’ She said, ‘God could have chosen anyone to be his messenger for domestic violence and he chose me and I don’t know why but I count my blessings every day.’” Dr. Alessi said. “It’s then when you realize you really don’t have any problems in your life.”