The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza
Woman from Colombia gets a new face
NAPLES — When I first met Amalia Mendoza, I knew of her situation. I’d seen photographs of the damage a car crash had caused her face.
But seeing it in person is nonetheless jarring. Without her prosthesis, Mendoza looks like something from a horror movie with injuries so ghastly you can’t imagine them being real. Her face, starting just above her upper lip, craters in. Where her nose would be is a gaping hole peering directly into her sinus cavity. Her eyes are gone and, perhaps more disturbingly, so are her ocular cavities. A makeshift browline appears before her forehead curves onto a misshapen skull, that is angular like a cubist painting.
Wigs easily hide the top of her head. But from the time of the accident in 2001 until master prosthesis maker David Trainer finished his first prosthesis for her seven years later, Mendoza could only leave the house behind a crudely fabricated rubber mask. It was held in place by tight medical netting that dug deep gashes into her delicate scalp.
Trainer offered a new hope. His prosthesis, he said, would allow Mendoza to blend into society. Instead of being blind and disfigured. She would be merely blind, a condition people can live comfortably with.
The finished result was nothing short of miraculous. From a distance of 15 feet, Trainer’s prosthesis made Mendoza look, well, normal. Even from a few feet away, Mendoza’s appearance didn’t garner disarmed stares, but those of wonderment.
She was a new woman, or, more presciently, a renewed woman.
In some ways, everyone involved with Mendoza’s time in Naples had their lives changed. None more so that Mendoza herself.
In short, the prosthesis lived up to the hype. At times it seemed impossible that a piece of molded silicone, weighing only a few grams, could bring about such profound changes in anyone’s existence.
“But it did,” Mendoza says in Spanish with her daughter Rocio Villa translating. “There have been a lot of changes.”
The confidence her new appearance gave her, despite not being able to see it, is noticeable.
“Before, she would go to the bank and wait outside, hiding in the car,” Villa says. “Now she goes right up. She does her banking and shopping for herself.”
Mendoza reopened her restaurant for a short time with the help of her son, Antonio Garcia, and a grandson. Now she’s renting it out while she helps manage her mother’s return to the family farm that was taken by the government decades ago.
She exudes joy, Villa says.
“You can hear it in her voice,” Villa says.
That is, if you can get a hold of her. Before the prosthesis Mendoza was often holed up in a small room at the rear of her restaurant.
“Now, I can’t find her,” Villa says. “She’s always on the go. I call her house. I call my sister’s house. I call cousins. She will always say, ‘Oh, I was out.’”
Villa too has seen her mother’s experience change her. At one point during her search for someone to help her mother, she came across a prosthesis maker in Washington, D.C. She asked him to do what Trainer would eventually do, a pro bono prosthesis.
“He said, ‘No, sorry, I don’t need any more advertising,” she says, still indignant that the man would be so blunt about the situation. “But he was going to be spending a week teaching people how to make them. It was like $5,000. But I thought maybe I could make one for my mother.”
Now Villa, who is finishing a criminal justice degree to help with her job as a crime victims’ advocate in New York, is thinking about learning so that she can volunteer with prosthesis makers near her home.
“I have seen what it can do for my mother,” she says. “I would like to help.”
For Trainer the changes have been more subtle. The publicity didn’t bring in a lot of new business for him and his boss, Raymond Peters, at Center for Custom Prosthetics in Naples.
“A couple of legs, actually,” Trainer says. “The thing is, not a lot of people are in the market for a prosthetic face.”
But it helped solidify his standing as one of the go-to guys for this type of work. Next month, he is flying to Oregon to do a prosthesis similar to Mendoza’s. In this case, the woman lost her nose and eyes from a shotgun blast to the face.
“We tried to call (chimpanzee attack victim Charla Nash),” Trainer says. “We never heard back from her.”
He tells of making a finger for a man who is thinking for running for president of Sierra Leone.
“It’s for his graduation,” he says. “He wants a graduation finger for when he shakes hands with the diploma.”
Even Daily News photographer Greg Kahn and I had our lives changed somewhat just from observing and reporting on Mendoza’s journey. Photographs from the series of stories the Daily News published in August 2009 were part of a portfolio that earned Kahn the honor of photojournalist of the year from the National Press Photographers Association, as well as a slew of other state awards.
My stories were honored by my employer, the E.W. Scripps Company, and earned a monetary reward.
Most of all, however, both of our lives were enriched by just spending time with Mendoza. Her spirit provided a transferable buoyancy to everyone who worked with her.
Walking into Trainer’s Immokalee Road office on Tuesday is one of those déjà vu moments.
Down the hallway a scene is playing out that had happened before, in October 2008. The same people had stood in that office, waiting as Trainer worked on a facial prosthesis for Mendoza.
Mendoza sits patiently, just as before, with her palms flat on her thighs. Garcia sits quietly in a chair on the far corner, occasionally tossing out a few words in Spanish and chuckling. Rocio hovered nervously, pacing around the room or buzzing about making tea and coffee.
A film crew working on a documentary about Mendoza and her transformation for Discovery Health are shooting close ups of Trainer at work painting flesh-colored silicone into a plaster mold of Mendoza’s face. The show is scheduled to air in October.
Trainer is creating a replacement for his original prosthesis which had faded in the Colombian sun from its original pink hue to a dull beige. Villa told Trainer that she thought the water in her mother’s town, Valledupar, might have something to do with it.
“She washes it very carefully every day,” Villa says.
- VIDEO: The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza
- PHOTOS: Day 1
- PHOTOS: Day 2
- PHOTOS: Day 3
- PHOTOS: Details
- PHOTOS: Amalia Mendoza comes back to Naples
- STORY: Chapter One: The accident and the miracle worker
- STORY: Chapter Two: The light of the party goes dim
- STORY: Chapter Three: Becoming whole again
- STORY: Amalia goes home to show off new face
- STORY: The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza: From crash victim to blending into society
- STORY: New woman, same spirit: Amalia Mendoza’s prosthesis has changed her — and those around her
- SPECIAL SECTION: For video, photos and stories about Amalia Mendoza
“I take care of it,” Mendoza says through Villa. “This is like a crystal to me.”
Kahn is in one corner, watching the action through the view finder of his camera.
After opening the door to the office, it is as if I’d stepped back in time. But this was a slightly altered universe, one where we know things we didn’t know before.
Trainer and Villa greet me warmly as I walk into the small back room that serves as Trainer’s work area.
“Mami, look who is here,” Villa says to Mendoza in Spanish.
We exchange the pleasantries of acquaintances who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Then we all fall back into a comfortable pattern: Trainer works, Kahn shoots, Villa describes the comings and goings to Mendoza and I stand on the sidelines taking notes.
A few minutes later, standing in the hallway, Trainer and I are discussing his life since I’d seen him last. Then he excitedly declares, “Oh, and I don’t roll my eyes and talk about women.”
He’s referencing a description of him in stories the Daily News published about his work with Mendoza.
Trainer steps back toward his work room. He smiles. And rolls his eyes.