Editor’s note: The following story contains several difficult subject matters, including domestic violence and suicide.
If you’re struggling and need immediate help or assistance, reach the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.
Tiffany Nemec remembers the way she used to smile: A big, toothy grin she loved showing to the world.
That was 14 years ago, though. Before she got engaged to a jealous man who beat her regularly. Before a shotgun blast knocked out half her teeth and damaged most of the rest.
Now Nemec doesn’t smile anymore.
In fact, she barely moves her lips at all when she talks. That way, people can’t see the empty gums where her teeth used to be. And they can’t see her two remaining, unbroken teeth jutting from her bottom jaw.
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“I talk in a way that people can’t see that my teeth are broken,” Nemec says, sitting on her living-room couch with her legs folded under her and two protective American bulldogs lounging nearby on the floor. “I don’t smile anymore. You’d have to see what my smile looked like before. I had a big, toothy smile, and now it’s — you know.
"It’s embarrassing. … Your teeth and your eyes are the first things that people see when they meet you.”
The North Fort Myers woman has been living with that broken smile since she was 20 years old and her ex-boyfriend finally made good on his threats and shot her twice — once in the abdomen and once in the face. Then he killed himself in front of her.
But now, at age 34, Nemec has something to be happy about.
She’s getting back her smile.
A Cape Coral dentist has agreed to remove what’s left of her teeth — mostly broken-off tooth roots left below the gum line. And he’ll replace them with brand-new dental implants.
All for free, except for the cost of the anesthesiologist.
The surgery is expected to happen sometime in the next two or three weeks. And Nemec’s been counting down the days.
“I’m so grateful,” she says. “So grateful. … I’ll have a full set of teeth again.”
Dr. Martinez comes to the rescue
Nemec had been trying for years to find a dentist willing to do the work at little to no cost. She lives on just $700 a month in Social Security and disability payments, she says, plus the meager amount she makes at her part-time job.
As a single mom raising a 15-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, Nemec simply can’t afford to pay for the surgery on her own, she says. Her dental insurance won’t cover it.
Nemec’s boyfriend, Kevin Jack Reisler, was there when she got that life-changing phone call from the wife of Cape Coral dentist Mauricio Martinez.
They were going to do the surgery for her.
“I’ve never seen somebody so happy,” says Reisler, 33. “She was literally in tears. … She lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Martinez and his wife had seen a TV news report last year about Nemec’s situation. And they decided right then to help her.
“My wife just turns to me,” Martinez says. “And she says, ‘You’ve gotta do something for this lady.’”
It’s typically a $45,000-$60,000 procedure, he says. But he’s donating his services, and the companies that make the implants and the surgical guide needed to place those implants are donating those, too.
All Nemec needs to do is come up with about $3,000 for the anesthesiologist.
She’s received $400 in pledges, she says, but so far no money has materialized. Now she’s worried the surgery might not happen if she can’t get the funds.
“I’m super-ecstastic,” Nemec says about the surgery. “But at the same time, I’m also nervous because I have to come up with the money, and I just don’t have it.
“So that’s my only fear: What if I can’t?”
But Martinez says she doesn’t need to worry. The surgery will happen, one way or the other.
“That’s not gonna hold her up,” he says. “We will take care of everything. It’s gonna happen.”
A history of domestic violence
Nemec says she’s thrilled that there’s finally some hope after her long, painful ordeal.
It’s an ordeal that started when she was 17 and met Richard Lawrence, who was 30 at the time. They'd eventually get engaged.
At first, things were great. But then his drinking and jealousy got worse and worse. He started controlling what clothes she could wear in public (nothing too revealing). He forbade her from talking to her family, who disapproved of the relationship and his eventual abuse.
“It was subtle,” she says about those changes. “You don’t notice it in the beginning.”
Then Lawrence — who had a long history of domestic violence dating back to at least 1995 — started hitting her.
“He never hit me when he was sober,” Nemec says. “He was still controlling when he was sober. But it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The moment he would start drinking, it was terrible.”
The beatings put her in the hospital several times.
“That was kind of my life with him,” she says. “We’d have these great periods, and then it would be terrible. Because he couldn’t quit drinking. …
“And each time it got worse and worse and worse, to the point where I knew he was gonna kill me. Because he told me he was gonna kill me.”
She left him several times, but she always came back. Finally, she decided enough was enough: She was leaving for good.
The next time he went to jail for hitting her, Nemec started saving money to get her own apartment. Then, right before he was released, she took their infant daughter and moved.
But when Lawrence got out of jail, he called her and said he wanted to see their daughter. Nemec agreed to meet him in a public place: A Target parking lot. The public setting didn't help Nemec, though. It ended in violence anyway.
Nemec told him she was dating someone else, and that’s when Lawrence exploded.
“He started punching me, choking me, hurting me in the parking lot,” Nemec says. “Our daughter was in our car seat in the back of the truck.”
Lawrence was arrested and sent to jail again after chasing Nemec to the Target entrance and slamming her head into the sliding-glass doors. Afterward, Nemec and her daughter went home to their new apartment — not realizing, she says, that Lawrence had managed to put a tracker on her truck.
After Lawrence bonded out of jail, she says, the tracker led him to her new, second-floor apartment in North Fort Myers.
She was asleep in her new bedroom — her new boyfriend beside her and her daughter in a crib in the other bedroom — when she heard the shotgun blast. It was 5 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2008.
“It was an unmistakable gunshot noise, and you could hear it hitting the door,” Nemec says. “So I knew immediately: Rick’s here, and he’s here to kill me.”
Her boyfriend bolted — he broke a window, ran to a nearby convenience store and called the police. Nemec grabbed her daughter, and she and her friend — who’d been sleeping on the couch after helping her move — hid in the closet.
But then Nemec’s “fight or flight” response kicked in, she says.
She decided to fight.
She met Lawrence in the bedroom doorway and tried to grab the gun. He threw her to the floor of the nearby bathroom. She landed on her back.
“I kicked the door shut, and he kicked it open,” Nemec says. “And he laid the gun pretty much on my chest and shot me."
Nemec says she didn’t feel any pain at first.
“I could hear the noise from the shotgun, and I could smell this terrible burning smell,” she says. “But I didn’t feel anything. It was like instant shock. There was no pain.”
Lawrence didn't say a word to her, she says. “He just looked at me and then turned and walked off. I’m pretty sure he was looking for my boyfriend.”
Somehow, she managed to stand up and stumble into her kitchen.
That's when she heard Lawrence walk up behind her.
She was dizzy from blood loss, though. So she fell right as he leveled the shotgun to her head and pulled the trigger a second time.
That fall probably saved her life, she says.
“It didn’t hit me head on,” she says. “It ended up hitting me at an angle and taking off this whole side of my face (she motions to the deep scarring on the right side of her face).”
Lawrence looked down at her and saw her bloody face. Then he pointed the shotgun at his own head and pulled the trigger. His body fell on top of her.
It was over.
Lawrence was dead.
Nemec spent the next four months recovering in a hospital and learning to walk again. But the aftereffects of Lawrence’s murder-suicide attempt would stay with her the rest of her life.
She’s needed many surgeries since then — 76 at last count — to repair the damage. That includes constantly fixing her damaged right eye and, right after the shooting, removing her spleen, half her liver and colon, three-quarters of her stomach and almost all of her large intestines.
Her body and skull remain peppered with buckshot from the shotgun blast, and she says she’s in constant pain from all the damage. She suffers from horrible migraines and short-term memory loss, so she relies on sticky notes to remember important things.
Then there’s her teeth.
Or what’s left of them.
“I have nothing,” she says, opening her mouth to show only two whole teeth. “I have these two teeth here. … I want to say just a little over half my teeth were blown out when I got shot.”
The rest were still there, but they were broken, chipped and otherwise damaged. And Nemec says they continued to degrade, crumble and fall out over the years.
“I had these open, broken teeth,” she says, “And I couldn’t afford to fix them. So they just deteriorated.”
Dentists told her she needed to remove all the teeth and get dentures, but she admits vanity was a factor.
She simply didn’t want to lose the rest of her teeth. And she hoped to find someone, someday, who could fix them for her — whether it was a kindhearted dentist or a domestic-violence group willing to help pay.
“I was 20 years old, and I’d never had a cavity in my life,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose my teeth. … And as time went on, they just got worse and worse.”
As a consequence, her gums are constantly getting infected and require antibiotics. And that's affected her ability to eat solid food, too.
These days, Nemec mostly eats broth or soup, she says. Or sucks on candies such as Swedish fish, which are soft and easy to swallow without chewing.
6-8 hours of surgery
Many of those problems will go away after the surgery with Martinez, a general dentist for Cape Coral’s Gulf Coast Smiles.
The procedure has been in the works for months, Martinez says. But it’ll be worth it if they can make things better for Nemec.
“She’s been trying to get help and nobody’s been either able or willing,” he says about why he’s doing the surgery. “I think it’s just a way of giving back to our society.
“And if we have the ability to help her and better her life, than why not do that for her?”
The surgery should take six to eight hours, he says. He’ll remove all her teeth, including the broken roots beneath the gum line and her two remaining, whole teeth (the average adult has 26-28 teeth, he says). And he’ll also clean up the infection in her mouth.
“It’s really in bad shape,” Martinez says. “She lives with constant pain. And there’s infection everywhere. It’s a really bad situation.”
After preparing her mouth, he’ll put in 10-12 new tooth implants and the dental bridges to connect them. The result, he predicts, will vastly improve Nemec’s quality of life.
“That day,” he says, “she’ll walk out with a new smile.”
Nemec’s boyfriend, Reisler, can’t wait to see that smile for the first time. And for his girlfriend to finally feel better about herself.
It’ll be a happy change after a lifetime of pain, discomfort and embarassment about her mouth. And after what she’s been through, he says, Nemec deserves a little happiness.
“This girl has been through hell,” Reisler says.
Nemec looks forward to that day, too. After 14 years of trying, she finally found someone to give her back that long-faded smile.
“It restores your faith in humanity,” she says. “It feels amazing.”
How to help
Nemec still needs to raise $3,000 for the surgery. You can donate to her GoFundMe page at tinyurl.com/2c9kayn5.
You can also donate directly to the dentist’s office. Just specify that the money is for the Tiffany Nemec fund.
Donations can be made by calling Gulf Coast Smiles at 239-549-0001 and giving them your credit card information. Or you can mail or drop off cash or checks at the dental office at this address: Gulf Coast Smiles, 4905 Chiquita Blvd., Suite 104, Cape Coral, FL 33914.
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1).
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Shooting survivor getting her smile back thanks to Cape Coral dentist