ST. LOUIS — Pat McGee noticed her daughter had not returned to the oral surgeon’s waiting room shortly before her surgery was supposed to start.
She walked to the nearest bathroom and found Jessica McDaniels, 32, outside the stall crying. McGee took her daughter into her arms.
“We are going to say ’bye to the old Jessica,” she said. “And hi to the new Jessica.”
McDaniels, a hairstylist in St. Louis, had been praying for this day since high school, when taunting about her misshapen teeth started. Now that it was finally happening, she was a nervous wreck.
She hadn’t slept well in days. This day, she stood up at 4 a.m. and looked around her bedroom.
“Today is July 11,” she said, a day that was going to change everything. She began to get ready. As she sat in the tub in a daze, tears started running down her face. She had been having dreams of not waking up after the surgery or getting up during the surgery.
She needed to take her mind off what was ahead. She got her two boys up for camp, did the dishes, started another load of laundry.
She posted on Facebook at 5 a.m: Surgery Day.
An ugly post
It was a Facebook post on May 2 that started this whole journey. Someone cropped McDaniels out of a friend’s engagement picture and wrote an insulting post about her extreme overbite and teeth. The post went viral, which unleashed a torrent of ugly remarks about her appearance.
McDaniels apologized to her friends who had gotten engaged and worried she had ruined their special moment. One of her high school friends created a GoFundMe page to raise money for her dental treatment.
McDaniels had been trying for years to get her teeth fixed, but it was always too costly.
When her story ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, dentists reached out, wanting to help her. Dr. Maryann Udy, with Northwest Oral Maxillo-Facial Surgeons, could tell from the picture in the paper that McDaniels’ case was going to be complicated, requiring multiple procedures and months of visits. She asked to be connected with Jessica and offered her a new smile — free of charge.
McDaniels was skeptical. She called her mama.
“You need to do it,” McGee told her daughter. She told McDaniels that Udy was her angel.
Still, McDaniels waffled about it until two days before the first procedure.
The morning of the surgery, Udy tried to calm McDaniels’ nerves.
“Hey, girl,” Udy greeted her, giving her a hug.
“I’m so nervous,” McDaniels said. “I’ve got butterflies.”
The two have developed a close relationship over the months. They text nearly every morning. Udy can sense McDaniels’ apprehension. Udy jokes about the lavender nail polish she’s wearing on her own nails, and McDaniels tells her it’s her favorite color.
This surgery would take about two hours. The doctor talked about bone remodeling, dental implants, swelling and all the necessary follow-ups. This was going to be far more than a cosmetic procedure. The final result will not come for months. McDaniels had several painful, failing teeth that needed treatment too. If she didn’t get treatment soon, her mouth could easily develop a life-threatening infection.
McDaniels mostly kept her pain to herself. At night, it was excruciating. She couldn’t eat with her front teeth, and it hurt every time she took a bite of food.
Her mother, with whom she talks daily, had no idea about the bullying she was facing online until a month after the Facebook incident. One day when McDaniels was driving her to work, she burst into tears. She finally told her mother she had gone viral. McGee, who couldn’t really understand because she had never been on Facebook, said, “Virus? Who has a virus?”
McDaniels tried to explain to her that tens of thousands of people were mocking her online.
“Be strong,” her mom said. “God has your back.”
The bullies didn’t know the road her daughter has traveled. McDaniels underwent nine surgeries and procedures on her ears from age 2 to 12 years old. She was mostly deaf in her right ear. Her adult teeth didn’t start coming in until she was 11 or 12, and doctors couldn’t figure out why they were pushed outward. It got worse as she got older.
Until that day in the surgeon’s waiting room, McGee didn’t know her daughter was teased and bullied in school because of her teeth. Her daughter had never told her.
“Mama, what if I don’t like it?” McDaniels asked before the surgery.
Her mother laughed, “Girl, you’re stuck with it.”
But she knew her daughter needed this.
Udy stopped to talk to McGee privately before she scrubbed in. She knew the GoFundMe account had raised more than $8,000. She and Dr. Thomas Matthes were donating their services, and companies were supplying the materials.
So far, McDaniels has used some of the money to get reliable transportation and to pay some household bills.
Udy asked McGee, would it be possible to use the rest of the money to take the boys to Disney? McGee said she wanted to try to make it happen for Christmas.
“You’ve raised a beautiful daughter,” Udy said to McGee, giving her a hug before walking into the surgery room.
The waiting room was filled with women who had come to support McDaniels — her two grandmothers, her mom, her aunt and a few friends. They talked and laughed and waited.
Finally, after two hours, an update.
“She’s doing great,” the office worker reported. McDaniels was still heavily sedated and wanted her mom to see her first.
“Hey, look at you,” McGee said, as she walked in the room. “She’s trying to smile.”
It could take weeks for the swelling to go down, and several months before her new smile will be complete.
Even after the painkillers wore off, McDaniels waited two days before she looked in a mirror. A different face would look back. She looked at old Snapchat photos.
“I loved her,” she said, about the old Jessica.
She’s grateful to be in less pain, to be on the path to a new smile. Sometimes, though, it feels like something is missing from who she was.
Still, she loves taking selfies and admiring the progress so far.
“I looked good before,” she said. “I look even better now.”
Tribune News Service