Repairing smiles so battered women can face the world again

The Associated Press - GILLSVILLE, Ga.

The mangled face Julie Humphries saw when she looked in the mirror was
consuming her life.

Afraid to show that face in public, she had become a loner since her
husband kicked her in the mouth with a steel-toed boot. She dared not
even reveal her mouth to her newborn daughter.

Her most natural expression _ her smile _ was stolen away by a jealous
and abusive husband. But she'd soon find it could be restored by
talented dentists working with the Give Back a Smile program.

She arrived at dentist Mark Sayeg's Sandy Springs office in October,
reluctant to show this stranger her teeth. He needed a "before"
picture, but she'd only offer a grimace that betrayed the slightest
glimpse of her shattered mouth.

Over the next six weeks, he worked his magic. Fixed her two front
teeth. Conducted root canals and removed damaged nerves to treat the
pain on her damaged back ones. Fillings replaced cavities, and next
came veneers, which capped eight teeth.

A month later, Humphries's mouth had been transformed from a den of
broken teeth into a picture-perfect smile. And she had become one of
the more than 550 women whose smile had been saved through the
program's work.

It was started in 1999 by dentists with the American Academy of
Cosmetic Dentistry who wanted to create a network where battered women
could turn for dentistry help. Now it boasts more than 700
participating dentists and 100 labs _ and a track record that would
make an ER doctor blush.

Gunshot wounds have been erased. Broken jaws restored. Years of dental
neglect reversed.

"We have no limits on what we're willing to do," says Laura Kelly, a
Danville, Calif., technician who is the incoming president of the
dentists' association. "Our smile is our natural communication, and it
is also a constant reminder of abuse. By providing this service, we're
changing their whole life."

Surprisingly, they struggle to find willing patients. Women's shelters
tend to be rather skeptical about the free offers for procedures that
can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

For those that find out about the service, the criteria is rather

Before they start, the women have to prove they are out of the
relationship and in a safe place for at least a year. And they must
meet with a counselor or a domestic violence advocate who can confirm
the injuries were caused by an abusive relationship.

Humphries was a perfect match.

She had married her husband when she was just 16 and moved to
Gillsville, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. Soon his emotional
bullying turned physical. She broke up with him more times than she
cares to remember, but each time she'd take him back, convincing
herself it was best for their 13-year-old daughter.

He crossed the line the final time in the spring of 2005. She told him
he'd gone too far after he was accused of harassing another woman at
the factory where they worked together. On the ride home, he tried to
steer the car into a tree.

It got worse when they got inside. He started to hit her and when she
fell, he didn't stop, kicking her repeatedly in the face. She stayed
on the living room floor until he fell asleep.

And then she escaped. Got a divorce. Got her bloody face stitched up.
And he got sentenced to about a year in prison.

The bruises would heal. But the mess in her mouth would not. A deep,
dark depression set in and Humphries grew terrified of going out.

Her new smile changed that.

She landed a new job as a machinist at a local factory. She moved into
her mother's house. She abandoned her fear of going outside. And she
regained her confidence.

But her mother, Sue Morrison, said she noticed the biggest change may
have come just after Humphries got her teeth fixed.

"That's the first time I had seen her smile at the baby," she says.

It still hurts Humphries to summon up the memories of what happened.
She hadn't even told her dentist how her mouth got mangled until a few
days ago.

But she knows she's on the right track.

"It gave me back my self confidence I had lost," says Humphries, now
32. "To have that back means everything."

At a convention in Atlanta last week, dentists and technicians from
across the nation gathered to discuss the latest dental procedures and
browse the newest equipment. One night, they held a ritzy banquet, and
a dozen statuesque models trotted down the catwalk for a fashion show.

Then Humphries came out. She looked tentative at first.

The crowd roared. Suddenly, the woman who could barely show her face
in public was getting a standing ovation from a thousand dentists.

And she couldn't stop smiling.