Face to face Service brings plastic surgeons, victims of abuse

Saturday, April 27, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- To look at her is to know that life hasn't been all that kind. There's worry in her eyes. Weakness in her voice. Her hands are wrinkled, weathered, worn. Her skin, aged. Her voice, raspy.

Debilitating injuries and years of wear and tear have left their marks, too, on her 5-foot-6-inch frame.

Gina Rallo knows she will never be a beauty queen. But today, almost four years after a vicious attack by a boyfriend left her inches from death, she wonders why she couldn't look decent, if not attractive.

The truth is, Rallo, 45, of suburban Florissant, is much better off than she could have ever imagined a few years back. She credits a series of surgeries, all performed free by way of the Face to Face program, which pairs victims of domestic violence with local plastic surgeons. Yet cosmetic surgery, even when it's upward of $60,000 worth of services, can't erase the memory of abuse.

'I have no teeth'

A turbulent, four-year relationship with Ronald Snell of north St. Louis County ended with an attack on July 12, 1998, that left Rallo with a battered body and a wounded soul.

"I have no teeth, just these top and bottom fangs," she said in disgust. "And I hate my hands. The doctor said they'll never be the same. They throb." There's "a scar down my belly, tube scars on my neck" and cigarette burns on her legs and cheeks.

And that's just what can be seen.

In fact, she still blames herself for the imprisonment of her former boyfriend. Snell, then a bricklayer, got a concurrent sentence of 15 years for first-degree assault, three years for felonious restraint and three years for armed criminal action in connection with the attack.

"I had a real problem with prosecuting him because I lived. I didn't die. To put somebody in jail for 15 years," she said, allowing her voice to fall to a whisper. "The things that were wrong with me could heal. You feel like it's not worth him losing 15 years."

Unlike many women who stay in abusive situations, Rallo says, "I didn't have a bunch of kids or a home. I should have been able to walk away. But I was scared that he was going to kill me."

Helped a dozen patients

The justice system brought Rallo and Dr. Brock David Ridenour together in 1999.

Following Snell's sentencing hearing, Rallo met a St. Louis County domestic-abuse advocate who told her about Face to Face National Domestic Violence Project, a nationwide program that provides reconstructive surgery for free.

After completing a psychological profile, she became acquainted with Ridenour, the 44-year-old plastic surgeon appointed to put her broken pieces back together.

The assignment was right on target for Ridenour, an assistant professor at Washington University Medical Center and a staff physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

So far, he's helped about a dozen Face to Face patients. He calls Rallo's case "one of the most outrageous and egregious."

Ridenour said most domestic-violence patients lack self-esteem and feel that they have few options. "Some women feel as if they deserve whatever," he said, "because they didn't perform or didn't keep the house clean or didn't perform sexually."

From the beginning, Ridenour knew Rallo's case would be tricky.

"She's got soft tissue and bony deformities. Multiple fractures were already treated before, but we're going to correct her nose, one of the most noticeable improvements we can make," Ridenour said then.

To Rallo, the new doctor was her ticket to a better, more beautiful life.

"If it wasn't for Dr. Ridenour, I don't know what I would've done," she later said. "If I would've had to walk around like the way I looked after, I would've killed myself."

As a youth, Rallo was always trying to look better. She wore braces for a while. She got a nose job. Yet, she never felt that anything did any good.

"I've always felt I was the ugliest person in the world," said Rallo.

Through Rallo's eyes, each surgery brought her closer to beauty and further away from being "freakish."

In all, she endured four operations. The first, in June 1999, was to reconstruct her nose. The second, in September 1999, was to repair her upper eyelids, contour her forehead, add synthetic tissue patches to her face and to do follow-up work on her nose. The third, also in September 1999, was to remove infected implants from her right cheek. The fourth and last surgery, March 2000, was to augment her cheeks and to tighten her right lower eyelid.

An odd package

On the day of her last visit to the doctor, Rallo brought along a gift in an oddly wrapped package. It was different from the wine, food baskets and dinner certificates Ridenour usually received from patients.

Members of his staff stood paralyzed as they eyed Rallo's package of a few CDs of John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Sarah McLachlan wrapped in gauze and bandages, with uneven, thread-stitched initials.

"It's patched together like I am," she said.

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