BEVERLY HILLS (CBSLA.com) — A local couple is helping victims heal from both the physical and emotional scars of domestic violence.

One such victim — Saundra Crockett — says she had so much to look forward to as a married, young mother to two kids.

But at the age of 28, she says she never imagined someone she loved could shatter her world forever.

“I wore a mask for twelve years,” said Crockett, explaining that she wore it to cover her face after she says her husband at the time beat her so severely she suffered a massive infection that literally
ate away her face.

“The first hospital said, ‘You know, you’ve got three days to live and you probably won’t make it,’ ” she said.

She did survive but then had to figure out how to be a mother to her kids practically without a face.

“They could hear my voice so they knew who I was but they didn’t know who I was because of my face,” she said. “It was ah … pretty awful.”

Sadly, Crockett’s story isn’t unique.

“It’s very difficult sometimes,” said Deborah Alessi, a former victim of domestic violence.

Alessi started a Los Angeles-based nonprofit called Face Forward. In seven years, it has provided free reconstructive surgery to hundreds of people worldwide who have been physically abused.

“They have to look in the mirror and be reminded this man or this woman or this mother did this to me,” she said.

Face Forward is a family affair: Alessi’s husband, Dr. David Alessi, performs the operations.

They’ve helped many, including Crockett, who couldn’t close her left eye or open her mouth wide enough to eat before the reconstructive surgeries.

“This is a thousand times better than what I looked like when this first happened to me. I don’t think I could even describe how awful it was,” she said.

But Alessi says surgeries are only part of the healing process. All their patients must also complete therapy.

“If they don’t get the therapy with the surgery, which we provide, then they are going to continue to date an abuser and if we can help change that pattern, then that’s why we’re here,” she said.

It’s all free of charge except for one catch.

All patients must sign a form saying they’ll pay it forward: once their surgeries are done, they’re asked to be advocates against domestic violence.

Alessi says there is no better reward than seeing her patients begin to heal.

“It’s very emotional but when I see the end results, it’s like a happy ending,” she said.

Now, four years after her last surgery, Crockett says she has the confidence to live mask-free and hopes to be an example to others.

“If I can speak to one person and give them hope that this doesn’t have to happen to you, I think that it’s my job to do that,” she said.

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