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Texas woman advocates for domestic violence survivors after she was shot in the face

Carolyn Thomas turned her pain into purpose by mentoring women all over the country and starting up her own nonprofit, Voices4All Foundation.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The above video and this article contain imagery and descriptions that some may find disturbing. 

Every nine seconds in the U.S., a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to the Partnership Against Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a serious issue that needs year-round attention. No one understands that more than Carolyn Thomas.

"Dec. 5 of 2003. It was a Friday. He was all over the place. He's screaming and yelling," Thomas said.

Terrence Kelly was enraged and hallucinating. Police believe he had just smoked marijuana mixed with embalming fluid.

"After that, I really don't remember anything," Kelly said.

"We had a tussle in my room. I happened to fall into the closet and bumped into something that made the gun fall out of the shoe box," Thomas said.

What happened next would change Thomas' life – and face – forever.

"I don't remember him actually putting the gun to my temple and pulling the trigger. I didn't feel any pain. But I do remember touching my face. It didn't feel like anything. It felt like a sponge, just like an over-saturated sponge," Thomas said. "I lost 80% of my face."

Kelly and Thomas had a tumultuous 8-year, on-again, off-again relationship. Thomas said she endured both physical and mental abuse, adding that Kelly would often tell her, "If you leave me, I will kill you."

KVUE's Yvonne Nava asked Kelly why he didn't just end the relationship. He answered, "Love."

"But would you abuse someone you love?" Nava asked.

"I wouldn't say I was abusive. We got into some things a few times, but I'm not an abusive person," Kelly said.

"I left several times. Several times. And I would always go back," Thomas said.

Things started off well between the two, as most relationships do. 

"We were introduced to each other. He was like really quiet at first," Thomas said.

But soon after, Thomas began to notice streaks of jealousy. 

"I was unable to associate with my male cousins that that were from Waco. He didn't believe that they were my cousins," Thomas said.

Her family had a bad intuition about Kelly, and they warned her to not associate with him. But Thomas said she didn't listen. 

"I was 22 at the time, and I thought I knew everything," she said.

What Thomas didn't know is what would take place years later at her Waco apartment.

"He shot my mom first, in the stomach, and then drug me into the living room and then shot me in the face [at] point-blank range," she said.

Thomas described the moments that followed as an "out of body" experience.

"Everything is going so fast and in slow motion all at the same time," she said.

She was in-and-out of consciousness and remembers waking up to her mom asking for the cordless phone to call the police.

Meanwhile, a neighbor heard the gunshots and called 911. When officers arrived, they found Thomas' mother bleeding in the hallway. Her mother begged the first responders to tend to her daughter first. Soon afterwards, she died.

When officers came across Thomas' body, they thought she was dead. 

"I grabbed his ankle to let him know I was alive. And he said the first thing he did was reach for his gun," Thomas said.

A jury convicted Terrence Kelly of murder and attempted murder. He is serving a life sentence at the Coffield Unit, the largest prison in Texas. 

For this story, KVUE paid him a visit.

"My heart bleeds daily about that, you know? But I tried to remember, I just can't," Kelly said.

Kelly claims he has no recollection of that day. But one look in the mirror is all it takes for Thomas to remember what he did.

Reconstructing Thomas' face has been a life-long journey. She's had well over 25 surgeries. Another surgery is scheduled to take place on Nov. 30 at Houston Methodist.

"I lost the right eye, the nose, my upper jaw," she said.

She said the damage was extensive. She breathed through a tracheotomy and for years received nourishment from a feeding tube. But she's become whole again thanks to the painstaking work of a dream team of doctors, led by Dr. Eugene Alford.

"He said, 'Carolyn, I'm not going to be able to make you back to the way you once were.' He said it's not going to happen. 'But what we will do is, we will get you to a point to where you feel comfortable going out into the world,'" Thomas said.

Thomas has become the most recognizable face of domestic violence. She appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Larry King Live." People magazine has also featured her story.

Thomas turned her pain into purpose by mentoring women all over the country and starting up her own nonprofit, Voices4All Foundation. There, she gets to give back and help other survivors.

"I tell people a gun is not nothing to play with. Once you pull it out, you cock it back and you pull that trigger, it is over," she said.

Above all else, Thomas asks people to pay attention to the warning signs.

"Don't brush off the jealousy. Don't brush off the control or the mental or the emotional. Don't brush it off," Thomas said. "And once you leave, once you say, 'I'm gone,' put your foot down and don't go back."

Yvonne Nava on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

KVUE on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

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