Domestic abuse is more than skin deep

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The scar is ink black, the size of a dog biscuit and rough to the touch.

Laineda Dumerjean stares straight ahead, stoic as Daniel Man, a plastic surgeon, gingerly touches the scar.

It's a keloid, he warns her. "The worst kind of scar to try to eliminate."

A keloid, you see, doesn't act like a typical scar. It grows over time, causing pain as it stretches nerves in the skin.

Laineda knows this already. She's gone to doctors in the past but nothing helped.

"When people look at me they don't see me," Laineda says. "They see the scar. When I look, that's what I see, too, reminding me every day: 'You're different from your friends. You chose someone who did this to you.'"

She was a 16-year-old girl when it happened. She's a 24-year-old woman now.

Man is her last hope. For nearly three decades, this soft-spoken Boca Raton doctor has tried to help women like her. Women who've been hurt by a man.

One lost her lower lip to a gunshot wound. Another, a piece of an ear. Still another, a chunk of her nose. Her boyfriend bit it off.

Man doesn't quiz the women about their past. On this warm, sunny day in September - her day for surgery - he doesn't ask Laineda, either.

"I try not to ask too much," he says. "It traumatizes them."

Laineda can still feel the slap, so hard and furious it made her face burn. She can still see herself, reaching for the kitchen knife, hear herself screaming: "Stay away from me."

She remembers Guerdy, towering over her tiny frame, grabbing the knife away in seconds. The blade digging into her soft flesh.

How had it come to this?

She'd met Guerdy Bartelus when she was 15, a church-going girl who sang in the choir. Guerdy was 20, standing a trim 6 feet 3, looking fit from working construction, dressed in pressed pants and a white shirt. He'd come by her church, smiling sweetly, dimples working overtime. Finest manners you'd ever seen.

"Unless you saw him mad you'd never know," Laineda says.

The stabbing created a scar that grew, like a cancer, and just as deadly.

Over the years, she's fabricated stories about the scar's origin. "Chicken pox," she'd say. Or she'd let people think it was something as tragic as a gunshot wound. Even that, to her, was better than the truth.

"I don't want to tell them my boyfriend beat the bejeezus out of me," she says.

How could she explain that Guerdy, once her sweet-talking hero, had become a monster? Turned into a man who cut a thong off her body, muttering hotly, "Only sluts wear those." Who pushed her -- pregnant with their son -- out of a moving car. Who told her, that if he wanted her dead, she'd be dead.

For years Laineda shunned stylish clothes, opting for turtlenecks, even in steamy South Florida, because they hid the damage. That chest scar - roughly 3 inches long and half as wide - kept her from her high school prom and her brother's wedding pictures. All because it would be visible with any dress she'd want to wear.

"I've missed out on so much," she says.

This surgery will make one little dream a reality and for Laineda, at this moment, that's enough.

She wants to wear a sexy, low-cut dress, like all the other girls, to Florida Atlantic University's homecoming dance. She graduates in December. This is her last chance.

"There are days I wish Guerdy was still here. He looked at me like I was the No. 1 person in the world. Like no one else mattered."

The doctor offers no guarantees. There's a one in two chance of the keloid coming back. In a terrible way, Laineda feels responsible for that. After Guerdy cut her, she tried tending the wound. It became badly infected. That infection probably contributed to the keloid, the doctor tells her.

"You have to be prepared," Man says. "Sometimes it doesn't work, and we just have to give up."

Laineda nods when the doctor asks if she's ready.

She's ready. To put the past behind her.

In the beginning, Guerdy treated her like something special. Drove her to school while her classmates walked. Fixed her spaghetti and eggs. Helped her with laundry.

He made her feel big and important in a world where she felt small and unnoticed.

Laineda was 12 when she arrived in Lake Worth from Haiti with her family. Her older brother was smarter, she always thought. Her younger sister, the precious baby of the family.

Laineda and her father, oil and water, battled over everything. Guerdy was cool salve for that.

"I had moments when my world was crashing, and I could talk to Guerdy and he'd listen," she says. "He'd let me blow steam. Then he'd pump me up when I was feeling bad about myself. He'd say, 'You don't know how pretty you are. How smart you are.'"

When Guerdy took a job at Target, where she worked, she thought, "How sweet."

When he told her how to dress, she thought, "How caring."

When he called her school ROTC friends "pigs," she thought, "He's looking out for me."

But then it happened. Eight months into their relationship, he slapped her for the first time. She had talked to another guy at work. So Guerdy hit her. She was so surprised, she felt embarrassed, not outraged. Everyone at work saw him do it.

Over time, Guerdy kept hitting. Sometimes he'd cry and be sorry, his brown eyes spilling tears, his arms around her. More often he said she was to blame, saying or doing something to make him mad.

Laineda didn't know that this is how it goes with guys like Guerdy. That once he starts hurting you, he'll do it again.

"I thought I buried the past with Guerdy. I was going to school and didn't think what happened with him had anything to do with my life anymore. I was wrong."

Laineda's face twitches slightly in pain as she lies on the operating table, but she says nothing.

Gently, the doctor repeatedly injects a needle around the scar, numbing it for what comes next.

Man has helped scores of women - so many he's lost count - disfigured by abuse. He charges them nothing. Since 2001, he's worked with Palm Beach County's Victim Services Division, helping women like Laineda, putting their bodies, if not their lives, back together.

Domestic abuse scars in ways far more damaging than a broken arm or bloodied nose. Those can heal. The other wounds, left untreated, can grow and fester.

"Those scars are mental and emotional, not just physical," says Pam O'Brien, executive director of Palm Beach County's Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse. "They eat at the heart and the soul of a person."

But it's hard for a woman - 85 percent of domestic abuse victims are female - to escape.

She stays because he controls the car or the cash or the children. Because she's afraid if she leaves, he'll kill her.

He hits or stalks or shoots because the only way he can feel important is to make her feel like nothing.

"She never knows what's going to set him off," O'Brien says. "She walks on eggshells."

Laineda now understands that anything could trigger Guerdy's rage.

He beat women. More than one and more than once. Laineda, then another in Port St. Lucie. Then another in Palm Springs.

His record tells a chilling story of 14 arrests in four years, often on charges of domestic battery. Sometimes he did a little jail time, but he always got out.

Laineda couldn't imagine how things would play out. She was young, naïve, and he was her first love. Plus, there was a bonus: Her father didn't like him.

"I wanted to get back at my father in the worst possible way," she says.

In their 13 months together, Laineda and Guerdy would break up and make up. After she became pregnant, she moved in with him briefly because, "I had nowhere else to go."

By the time their son, Hakeem, was born in the summer of 2002, she was living with her mother in Lake Worth and headed back to high school. She graduated and was earning a degree at Palm Beach Community College when, three years ago, the unthinkable happened.

Guerdy, then living in Palm Springs with a 21-year-old girlfriend and their 1-year-old son, shot her dead, killing an innocent bystander, too. Two days later, Guerdy ended his life with a bullet in a Lauderdale Lakes apartment as police moved in.

When she heard the news, Laineda thought of Hakeem and his tragic legacy: a father who hurt women, and now a murderer.

"I've been using that scar as an excuse. It's time to let it go. Throw it away and everything else that goes with it."

The doctor reaches for the surgical scissors and starts cutting.

"No pain?" he asks.

"No pain," she answers quietly.

Man clips around the scar, cutting it out like a paperdoll, leaving a temporary hole in her skin. Bloody. Raw. Vulnerable.

Laineda thinks back to the other cut, the one Guerdy made with that knife.

"I took what Guerdy did to me and tried to bury it," she says. "I still didn't feel OK, but I'd put on a happy face. But really, I'm shattered. I have to get to the point where I'm not angry any more, for the sake of my son."

Laineda continued with school, graduating from community college and enrolling at FAU to study criminal justice, in hopes of helping women like her.

At FAU she met another student, Giorgio Jacome, and fell in love again. They had a baby, followed by a brief marriage that ended this year.

Now they're battling over custody of 20-month-old Michael. Though Jacome declines to talk about the couple's problems, court records show a maelstrom of troubles: Jacome, claiming Laineda is suicidal. Laineda, insisting Jacome threatens with words instead of fists.

Laineda says a judge heard her history and remarked: "You're not over this."

For a year, she's been talking to a counselor. Eliminating the scar is another step.

It will take months before she sees how surgery and time work together to diminish the scar.

"Now I can tell my son, this is a scar from surgery. Not, 'This is what your dad did to me.' I don't have a scar from Guerdy anymore."

She starts counting the days to homecoming. A friend at Bloomingdales, where they both work, says he'll do her makeup.

The day of the dance, she puts on a purple strapless gown, the scar vanquished by concealer and a big, bold necklace.

"Look," she says, pointing to her chest. "You can't even see it."

And when she steps onto the dance floor, she's just like the other students, caught up in the music and the fun.

Liz Doup can be reached at ldoup@ SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4722.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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