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An extreme makeover for a worthy survivor

Michelle Comeau, domestic abuse survivor, before and after a makeover
Michelle Comeau, domestic abuse survivor, before and after a makeoverDr. Julian L. Henley

Chances are you’ve seen the “extreme makeover” shows, and heard the stories. You might have even hoped it would happen to you—that free beauty makeover that transforms the drab into fab overnight. But what happens when the spotlights and cameras go away?  Ever wonder how a sudden makeover really changes a person’s life? 

In America, the land of second chances, it may be the ultimate do-over: waking up to a newer, better body. From TV reality shows, to magazine covers, to the Web— making that body younger, tighter and firmer seems tops on an aging nation’s to-do list. 

But is it a cosmetic surgeon’s dream come true?  Dr. Julian Henley, a Connecticut cosmetic surgeon, believes those reality shows are misrepresenting what his profession is all about. 

Dr. Julian Henley: When we begin to make somebody look like a star when they’re not a star, when you take a duck and make it look like a swan— this becomes troublesome.

His wife Kari says he tried to explain his frustration after watching those makeover shows.

Kari Henley, Julian Henley's wife: As we were brushing our teeth, he said “I’d like to do something for the right reason.  And then we said, ‘Well, what would that look like? And who could we help?”

They decided they would help out who was trying to rebuild her life, someone who needed an exterior makeover to match the one taking place on the inside.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: What made you decide to focus on a victim of domestic violence?Kari Henley: Clearly women who’ve been through domestic violence may have had not only scars or damage done to their physical appearance but certainly scars and damage done on the inside that may never heal. 

But where would they find that deserving patient? The answer quickly took shape in an unusual contest— a free makeover, everything from surgery, to clothes, to hair, and even a coming out party donated by the doctor and local merchants.

The response was swift. There were dozens of heartbreaking letters and e-mails. But after weeks of sifting, a winner: Michelle Comeau.

A worthy recipient
The former salon and spa manager from Connecticut had a survival story that the Henleys believed was especially compelling.

For Michelle, that story begins with an old boyfriend named Jamel, a man trying to get beyond drug abuse and a troubled past.

Michelle Comeau: I felt sorry for him. He was older than me, but I really felt like he had had a difficult life and it’s almost like he needed some guidance of where to go with life.

It seemed to work. Jamel got a job, started going to church, and the couple moved in together. But in time, Michelle says Jamel became too possessive. She asked him to move out of their apartment. He refused.

James: Was there anytime during this stage where you thought "He’s getting dangerous, he might snap"?Comeau: I never really thought he was dangerous.

She was trusting, even in that spring morning back in 1999. When Michelle says Jamel approached her in the kitchen, wanting to talk about the relationship again, she remembers brushing him off.

Comeau: I turned my back to him to get my toast out of the toaster oven, and the next thing I knew, he came up behind me and he put his arm around my neck like this and began to try to strangle me. And I struggled with him and he let me go. I ran around the corner into our bathroom and shut the door. James: Did you think he was trying to kill you?Comeau: I was just hysterical crying, screaming for him to just leave. I just kept saying, “just leave.”

For a moment, the apartment fell silent. Michelle thought she was safe.

Comeau: The next thing I knew, he had kicked open the door and in his right hand was a knife. I’m on my back on the ground next to our toilet and he was just leaning over me, just stabbing at me, just repeatedly stabbing.

And then, suddenly, Michelle says the attack was over. Jamel was gone.

She dimly recalls stumbling out of the apartment, only vaguely aware of the gashes over her body. But to her horror, she could see the fingers of one hand had been nearly severed trying to defend herself.

A next door neighbor came to her aid, scooped her up, and rushed her to a nearby emergency room.  The most critical wound was one she couldn’t see: a puncture near the heart. Her sister Lori recalls standing in the hospital waiting.

Lori Comeau, Michelle’s sister: When the ear, nose, and throat doctor came out, he told us how close it had been, like a quarter inch to the carotid artery. He said she would have bled to death if it had hit that.

Jamel was arrested that day, still bloodstained from the attack.

In the following months, Michelle would see her former boyfriend tried and convicted for her assault and sentenced to 14 years—light punishment, she says, for turning her into a victim. She was scarred outside and in. A line on her jaw tracked the path of one knife gash, a longer scar on her chest marks the trauma of emergency surgery that saved her life. 

Comeau: Even with shirts and stuff on, it’s not something I like to show,  like if my shirt droops down. I’m glad I have all my fingers and I’m very grateful just to be here. But you know, it’s hard.James: So, it’s a reminder that you will carry always...Comeau: Yes.

Her sister Lori says Michelle wears each mark like a badge of shame.

Lori Comeau: To be able to look at yourself and not see it everyday, every time you look in the mirror, “Oh, there’s you know, that scar that I have to get up every morning and try to cover,” no one should have to do that.

But now, several years after her attack, Michelle is being given a rare opportunity. Dr. Henley says he’ll try to soften her scars during surgery.

But Dr. Henley says he’ll do even more for her: He'll smooth the profile of Michelle’s pointy nose, plump up her thin lips, and pin back her ears.

James: There would be a lot of people who would say, “You look gorgeous.  Why undergo plastic surgery when you look as attractive as you already do?”Comeau: I’m the one that looks at myself everyday. And this is how I feel about myself and things I wanna change about me.

And compared with the major cosmetic overhauls on reality TV, Michelle’s changes are relatively tame. But then, the Henleys say, revamping an ugly duckling was never the intention of this makeover.

Dr. Henley: I wanted to work with a patient who’s a real patient — who’s making decisions and who is choosing to do this. It’s not the doctor coming and saying I’m going to do something to you. I think that’s the Hollywood version of this.Kari Henley: What impressed me about Michelle is she’s the only candidate of all of them who in her initial description was very positive about her life. Her story was incredible. It was one of the most dramatic of all of them.

But as content as she may seem, Michelle thinks this makeover could be a catalyst.

James: Do you think that this makeover is going to change your life?Comeau: I think it could. Depending upon how what effects it has on me, could definitely, you know, take my life in a different direction...

Several years since Michelle Comeau was rushed into the operating room near death after being stabbed by an enraged boyfriend, she got ready to head back into surgery... in part to soften the scars left by that attack.  Her family has said those scars embarrass Michelle.

But Michelle is more excited about Dr. Henley’s other plans for her: a new nose, reshaped ears, and lips. Well before her operation, she told us she had complete confidence in Dr. Henley.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: There are plenty of stories out there of people who have had plastic surgery and things have gone from "fine" to "bad." Do you have any worries of that sort?Michelle Comeau: I think he has really great credentials. The only thing concerning me is probably the nose, I’m worried. I just hope the nose turns out good.

And on surgery day, one of Michelle’s sisters, Jamie, is also worried that the donated makeover — surgery, new clothes, makeup, and hairstyle— could wind up going too far. 

Jamie Comeau, Michelle’s sister: I’m nervous, but I think more because I’m not sure what she’s going to look like when she’s done. Not worried about the surgery part, just wondering what she’s going to look like.

The operation
Over a period of three hours, Dr. Henley pins back those “stick-out” ears that drive Michelle crazy, cuts and repositions her nose, adds tissue to her lips, and gently burns the scar on her jaw line to fade it. The more noticeable, longer scar on her chest? Dr. Henley has decided to hold off on that.

Dr. Julian Henley: We can’t make it disappear and it’s already looking good. There’s a principle in medicine: if it looks good don’t try to make it look better.

Over the next few days, Michelle keeps photographic track of her recovery. By day five, still swollen and bruised, she visits Dr. Henley with a sister in tow. Michelle is ready for the doctor to remove the cast around her nose.  She’s fretted over that change the most. 

Michelle Comeau: It looks like so much nicer than like you said on the computer. It does. It looks great.

But what does she think about the untouched scar on her chest? The one she’s struggled to hide?  Michelle wishes it weren’t there, but the changes that have been made more than make up for the disappointment.

Comeau: Honestly, I think maybe even having these other things now that I’m less self-conscious about like being able to wear my hair up and maybe being happier with the way my face will look once the swelling goes down.  I don’t think [the scar] is going to be as big of a deal.

She’s already feeling different— more positive— about herself.  And remember, this makeover is not complete. A few weeks post-surgery, the doctor and his wife have planned a special day for Michelle. A slinky outfit for a night on the town, a major redo on hair and makeup, all courtesy of local businesses. 

And when the primping is over, a new, improved Michelle is ready for her grand entrance at a party... where friends and family gather to judge the final result.

Jamie, Michelle’s sister (initial reaction): Oh my gosh, you look beautiful!Lori, Michelle's sister: I  was hoping that I wouldn’t see a drastic change cause I still wanted to look at her and be like "that’s still my sister." And it’s very subtle and it looks wonderful!

Subtle is the key word here. Michelle’s lips are now only slightly fuller than they once were, but her wild ears have been tamed against her head. Her nose’s profile has been softened. Dr. Henley says despite what you see on makeover shows the point of most cosmetic surgery is not to make drastic changes with prominent features.

Dr. Henley: The object is to make the nose look so natural that you won’t know it’s been done.

But what about her jawline? The scar Dr. Henley did try to soften? After surgery, it looks more rough than soft. And that’s to be expected, says Dr. Henley. 

Yet a few months later, though the redness is almost gone, the scar is still there.

Just the beginning
But if anything, Michelle says the extreme part of this makeover is just beginning: not with how she looks, but with how she feels. The sudden attention from friends— new and old— has boosted her self-esteem, prompting her to finish college, to move out of mom’s house, to start thinking more seriously about her future, and more clearly about her past.

Comeau: I just never thought of myself as a victim.  And now, I see that clearly that I was.  And  I’m not ashamed to say that. 

And she’s not ashamed to admit that at times, she still feels like that victim. She worries her old boyfriend may be released from prison soon and may still be harboring a grudge. But the recent opportunities, and the surprising kindness of strangers, are helping her put life’s fears—and possibilities—into new perspective.

Comeau: It’s like someone saying, “You know, you went through something and I want to do this for you.” That alone made me feel special. I think that gives me a good feeling about the future and about things continuing to stay positive.

has told Dateline he plans to offer a free makeover to another victim of domestic violence soon. And he’s not the only doctor promising that kind of help: The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery provides free surgery to domestic violence survivors nationwide.