Teacher's bullet-torn face healing

February 15, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

A kindergarten teacher who was shot in the face two weeks ago in a foiled carjacking left Sinai Hospital yesterday, her facial bones healing after complex surgery that used grafts from her ribs.

Julie A. Lombardi left with the likelihood that her appearance will be restored, thanks to an eight-hour operation in which a plastic surgeon pieced together a mosaic of bone fragments, metal plates and screws.

Mrs. Lombardi should also be able to speak and eat normally after eight to 10 more weeks of healing, said the surgeon, Dr. Ronald H. Schuster.

"Surgery went very well," he said. "She's been an outstanding patient, very strong through the whole thing.

"She's very lucky. It could have been dramatically worse than an isolated injury to her upper jaw."

The injury was caused by an unidentified man who tried to force the 41-year-old teacher from her Acura Legend, then opened fire with a 9-mm semiautomatic handgun.

The incident happened Feb. 1, half a block from Malcolm X Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore as Mrs. Lombardi was beginning to drive home from work.

As she resisted and drove off, at least six shots were fired. One shattered the driver's-side window, hitting her.

The bullet tore through the left side of her face, shattering the bone structure that supports her upper teeth, the floor of her nose and upper palate.

It crossed her face laterally, knocking out two teeth on the left side of her upper jaw and two teeth on the right before exiting her right cheek.

Though the bullet missed her front teeth, its force drove forward the front section of her upper jaw.

For several weeks, she will continue to wear a dental splint that looks much like a bite plate. Wired to her upper teeth, it holds them inalignment so that her jaw can heal correctly.

An orthodontist, Jeffrey C. Miller, fashioned the splint after making a mold of her upper teeth.

Once the splint is removed, Dr. Schuster said, she will probably be a good candidate for dental implants -- false teeth that are screwed directly into bone.

The bullet left a path of bone fragments, some of which had to be removed because they were too fragile to be used in the complex grafting process that dominated the operation.

For replacement material, Dr. Schuster removed halves of two ribs from the right side of her chest. He said she should not notice their absence.

As if assembling a puzzle, he pieced bits of facial bone and rib to reconstruct the damaged portions of her face, using tiny titanium plates and screws to fasten them in place.

Marty Lombardi, the teacher's husband, opened a morning news conference at Sinai by thanking the doctor, the hospital staff and the public, which has flooded the family with letters of encouragement.

Reward money -- to be given to anyone who identifies his wife's assailant -- totals $7,000. People with information should call the Baltimore police Northwestern District office at 396-2466.

Those wanting to contribute to the reward fund should call the Baltimore Teachers Union at 358-6600.

Teary-eyed, Mr. Lombardi read a message to his wife's students, some of whom have had difficulty coping with the attack on their teacher.

"She misses all of you and hopes that you are continuing to work hard," he said, reading words that his wife had dictated. "And she adds that she loves each one of you."

Mr. Lombardi, 41, who works at a Giant Food store in Landover, said his wife wanted her students to get past their fear of going to school.

"She doesn't want them to be afraid," he said.

"This is an extremely rare occurrence. I've even offered to go to school to speak to them."

He said the family's neighbors in Timonium have already organized deliveries of soft, cooked foods -- easy on his wife's still-painful jaw.

Their 7-year-old son, Nicholas, has begun to get over the stress of seeing his mother in the aftermath of her injury, he said.

"He's coming along," Mr. Lombardi said. "He wandered up to her yesterday, then took me aside and said, 'That is the same mommy, isn't it?' "

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