EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next three days, the Daily News will tell the stories of Amalia Mendoza, the victim of a terrible car crash that robbed her of her face, and David Trainer, the man who brought her back to as close to “normal” as possible, through words, photographs and videos.
The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza
Woman from Colombia gets a new face
For seven years, Amalia Mendoza lived in a state of near isolation.
A tragic accident cut her off from an outside world where once she was the center of everything. Those years left Mendoza withdrawn and depressed, with only a small circle of family and clergy between her and suicide.
By early 2008, desperation permeated everything she encountered. Her doubts and anxieties infected her family.
From her home in Albany, N.Y., Mendoza’s daughter, Rocío Villa, began searching every night online to find something, anything, that could make her mother whole again.
After searching fruitlessly for months, she stumbled upon a Web site for the Center for Ocular and Facial Prosthetics — a small practice in Naples that boasted one of the world’s best anaplastologists. Better yet, it was a group that did pro bono work. All she had to do was get her mother to Southwest Florida. The man on the phone promised he would take care of the rest.
The man was David Trainer.
■ ■ ■
The place where Amalia Mendoza’s life changed is a spot on an empty road in the flat, rural nothings that separate western Venezuela and the mountain cities of eastern Colombia.
Thickets of pine and oak form walls along both sides of the arrow-straight road, occasionally giving way to a small field or clearing. If you block out the mountains that pop up in the distance, the road could easily be a deserted street deep in Golden Gate Estates, a place where you rarely see another soul.
It is so unmemorable a location that even when she tries, Mendoza isn’t able to tell you a single thing about it, despite having driven by it hundreds of times. When asked, she struggles to find words to describe it. Remembering is like walking through a heavy fog. Each step reveals itself only after the foot is already on the pavement.
Mendoza doesn’t remember how the day ended. But she does remember the beginning.
She got up at 5 a.m. and, although she owned a car, she took a three-hour bus trip from her hometown of Valledupar, Colombia, to a city just across the Venezuelan border, where supplies for her restaurant were less expensive. It was a trip she made a few times each month.
“I didn’t want to risk my car on the roads,” Mendoza explains in Spanish, with Villa translating, as to why she didn’t drive herself.
I told the driver, ‘Don’t speed up or you are going to kill us all.’”
- Amalia Mendoza
Once there, she and her brother spent less than $100.
Ready to head back home shortly before noon, Mendoza and her brother looked in vain for a bus heading east. So they settled on a cab, an old, beat-up, yellow four-door sedan that looked like a Toyota, although it’s tough to make out in photos. They waited for a few other people to join them for the ride back, and then they piled into the taxi and set off.
She sat in the back seat next to the passenger side window. One of the other passengers offered to let her sit in the front, but Mendoza preferred to sit next to her brother. After all, she didn’t know any of the other passengers. Or the driver.
From the very start, the cab driver wasted little time, speeding along the narrow road that connected Venezuela and Valledupar.
“I can remember he was driving very fast,” Mendoza says. “He just kept getting faster, too. I’m certain he thought that he could make more fares that day if he got us there sooner.”
When it started raining, Mendoza began to sense trouble. “I told the driver, ‘Don’t speed up or you are going to kill us all,’ ” she says.
That’s the last thing she’d remember for an entire year.
A hazy picture of the rest of the trip later became more clear, through bits of information her family has collected since.
The car began swerving on the wet pavement. The driver lost control. The car went into a ditch and it rolled for 30 or 40 yards before coming to rest upside down against a pine tree.
All the men in the car where able to free themselves quickly. But once outside, they saw Mendoza lying motionless in the back seat. What they didn’t notice was how her face was pinned between the headrest of the back seat and the top of the car. It was pinching her head right at the nose.
When they realized Mendoza wasn’t going to make it out of the car under her own power, they started to pull her out. But the crumpled steel had a tight grip on her face.
The men were frightened, especially as the smell of gasoline became more prevalent. What if the car exploded with Mendoza still inside?
They decided to pull her from the wreckage rather than wait for help, which could take hours to arrive.
As the men worked to free her, they were actually pulling off her face.
■ ■ ■
It’s early October, and David Trainer is sitting on a round, rolling stool that serves as his chair in his office off Immokalee Road. Listening to a radio announcer discuss the current financial crisis, Trainer rolls his eyes — one of those long, slow rolls where you wonder whether the eyeballs are going to get stuck before they come back down.
He’s a genius. He can give people back what they’ve lost.”
- Heidi Oatis
He chats up anyone who will listen. He has plans for fixing the economy — have Bill Gates give everyone in the United States $1 million. Then just as quickly he’s off on another topic. Horror movies. Sports. Women.
His droll British accent and graying hair hide a personality akin to an excitable teenage boy. The only clue is a boyish face that lights up at a good joke.
And, of course, there are the eye rolls at least twice an hour.
Look closer at what he is doing and you get a very different impression. He’s joking and carrying on, sure, but he’s also carefully painting layers of silicone into a mold of a human ear.
He’s nearly finished, and now he’s just working on the details. In a few hours, the ear will come out of the mold and look so lifelike, you’d swear it was the real thing.
When it comes to anaplastology — or facial prosthetics — there are few in the world who can do what David Trainer does. He possesses a rare combination of scientific knowledge and artistic skill.
“He’s a genius,” says Heidi Oatis, a hair prosthetics maker from San Francisco who has worked with and studied under Trainer. “He can give people back what they’ve lost.”
While he’ll rarely go that far, if pushed, he’ll tell you what everyone else in the business knows. “I’m the best at this,” he says.
For the most part, he prefers to let his work do the talking.
One night, after finishing a successful nose prosthesis, the grateful client offered to take Trainer out for a couple of drinks. They went to a bar on Fifth Avenue South, one of those tony places with mirror-lined shelves full of high-end scotch and small-batch rums. After chatting with Trainer for a bit, the client — a man in his 40s — began talking to a woman seated at the bar next to them.
The man started telling her about Trainer and his wizardry with prosthetics.
“So the next thing I know, the guy says, ‘You want to see how good he is?,’ ” Trainer says. “And then he pops off his prosthetic nose. I thought the woman was going to be sick.”
Knowing Trainer, and his love for and work on horror movies, a suddenly upset stomach might be the greatest compliment he’s ever had.
You do become a different person when you suffer a traumatic injury of any kind, but especially to your face.”
- Arlette Lefebvre
In reality, most of his work has just the opposite effect. With our faces so important in how people react to us, Trainer’s work often allows people to blend in.
■ ■ ■
“What was it that Aristotle said?” asks Arlette Lefebvre, a psychiatrist who has helped patients with facial differences for more than 30 years. “The face is the mirror to the soul.”
If your face is deformed or damaged, people tend to think that something internal is damaged, too. It’s not that we mean to be cruel, we just can’t help it, says Anna Pileggi, executive director of AboutFace, an international support network for people with facial differences.
“We have expectations about how people should look,” Pileggi says. “When they don’t, it creates confusion and tension. So then people who already feel uncomfortable with themselves feel even worse.”
Amalia Mendoza will tell you that losing three-quarters of her face didn’t change who she is. She’s still the same fun-loving, hard-working woman who was once a pillar of her community.
“I have not changed,” she says. “It is the others who are different.”
Emotionally, she’s right. Physiologically, the truth is stark. To see Mendoza’s face, something few people have, is to see inside your nightmares. Through no fault of her own, she’s become something that makes people uneasy.
From her upper lip down, Mendoza’s face is fine. Above, it’s a different story.
Between her lip and her brow line, her face craters. Where her nose should be, a pink cavern offers a glimpse into her sinuses. Above that, the lower portion of her ocular cavity is missing. She has no eyes. But more disturbingly, there is no place for them to go if she did. The tops of both of her ears look like melted wax.
Her skin is sickly yellow, oily from the lotion she must apply frequently to keep it from becoming raw. The surgical netting she uses to hold up the rudimentary prosthesis she’s worn for the past six years leaves deep, painful indentations criss-crossing her bald skull. A few small patches of salt and pepper hair grow on the back of her head. She keeps them closely cropped.
Even though she’s very much alive inside, to most people, Amalia Mendoza died with the loss of her face. All they see is a poorly constructed mask, covered by sunglasses and a wig.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“You do become a different person when you suffer a traumatic injury of any kind, but especially to your face,” Lefebvre says. “The question is, do you accept your new self or do you try to get back what you’ve lost?”