by Mike HanksSun Newspapers
It’s hard to say whether it was divine intervention, the holiday spirit or old-fashioned human compassion that brought two women together not so long ago.
Gracey Billman has a hard time remembering she’s 26 years old. She’s too busy to remember such details.
Billman, of Bloomington, is a dental assistant at Distinctive Dental Care of Bloomington. It’s a small office with a small staff, Billman doubles as its office manager. One hour she may be looking inside a patient’s mouth, the next hour she may be processing the patient’s insurance claims.
Like most women in their 20s, Billman is on the go, although two weekends ago she spent a lot of her time as a spectator. Her boyfriend’s son is a hockey player, and his youth hockey team had a big tournament that weekend. It was likely an exciting time for 10-year-old T.J. and his teammates; they were traveling from Bloomington all the way to Monticello.
The tournament was far enough away that the players, and therefore the parents, spent the weekend at a hotel. For T.J.’s team, their destination was Riverwood Inn and Conference Center, an ornate countryside hotel.
Billman and her boyfriend Tim spent the weekend in Otsego and Monticello, cheering on the youth hockey team and enjoying the amenities Riverwood Inn provided between games, namely the hot tub.
Thanks to their unwillingness to adhere to the rules of the hot tub, Billman learned the answer to an important question that had plagued her that day, and would change her life substantially.
Ashley Bruzek of Monticello doesn’t remember many details of the car crash that changed her life, but she is reminded of them every day.
Bruzek, 28, was a passenger in her friend’s vehicle as they were traveling through Cambridge on June 11, 2004. When her friend ran a stop sign at an intersection, their vehicle was struck on the driver’s side by an oncoming car that tried to avoid the collision, according to Bruzek.
Their vehicle went spinning into and out of a ditch. Bruzek was wearing her seat belt at the time, but the impact failed to lock her seat belt as the car spun out of control, throwing Bruzek face first into the dashboard. “It crushed the center of my face,” she explained.
More than eight years later Bruzek is still having work done to reconstruct her face. A chunk of rib now provides structure for her nose. Titanium helped reconstruct her jaw.
She is still having work done for her eyes, and can detail the intricate precision required for her next eye surgery. Insurance covers the expensive surgeries, but each surgery requires recovery time, which means time away from work.
Her two surgeries during the past year required more than rest and recovery. She spent many hours brokering insurance coverage for the procedures after the fact.
Bruzek spent nearly a month at Hennepin County Medical Center following the accident. She certainly had no idea eight years ago that she’d still be reconstructing her face, nor did anyone else. When her family received word that there had been an accident, they rushed to the scene. A paramedic still at the scene told the family that Bruzek had been sent to Minneapolis. He prepared the family for the worst, suggesting they would be lucky if she were still alive upon their arrival.
The smell of pizza
There’s nothing that fuels a youth hockey player quite like a slice of pizza.
For the first night of tournament weekend, Billman, Tim and T.J. ordered carryout pizza and wings for dinner. The problem with bringing dinner back to the inn: the smell. It doesn’t go away when you leave the empty containers in your room overnight.
On Saturday Billman wanted to get rid of the garbage sooner rather than later and went in search of a solution. She saw the housekeeping cart down the hallway and went to see about getting rid of Friday night’s dinner residue.
Her interaction with the housekeeper was awkward. There was no eye contact between the two, and the woman seemed to have a bit of a speech impediment. Billman was taken aback by the exchange, and curious. “I was really trying to see her face,” she recalled.
The housekeeper was Bruzek.
Bruzek came to Billman’s room to collect the garbage and bring clean towels. Billman tried to strike up a conversation, but Bruzek wasn’t having it. Billman was able to see a few glimpses of Bruzek’s face, however, enough to determine that she was missing teeth, and that there was a scar near her eye, Billman recalled.
For whatever the reason, Billman kept thinking about Bruzek throughout the day, enough that when a manager came to announce that guests were overstaying their welcome in the hot tub on Saturday night, Billman quizzed the man about the housekeeper.
The manager was hesitant to say a lot about Bruzek’s situation, but indicated she had been in a car accident several years earlier.
For reasons Billman wasn’t certain about that night, she was moved to offer help to Bruzek, but she wasn’t sure how she would do it.
Her instinct was to leave her business card for Bruzek when she departed on Sunday afternoon, but it never came to that.
As Billman, Tim and T.J. returned to Riverwood Inn on Sunday to collect their belongings and check out, Bruzek was vacuuming in the lobby, standing underneath a chandelier.
She nervously approached Bruzek. “I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into,” she said.
Billman asked to speak with Bruzek privately, away from other guests and employees.
Bruzek didn’t have any idea what Billman was about to say, and assumed the worst. She wondered if she or another employee had done something wrong. Instead Billman offered to help Bruzek with her dental issues. “I didn’t think in a million years that was going to happen,” she said.
Unlike the previous day’s encounter, Bruzek looked Billman in the eyes, and started crying, Billman recalled.
Questions of faith
Billman is like most people, she has no trouble critiquing or criticizing herself. “I don’t live a very Christian lifestyle,” she said.
Billman doesn’t consider herself to be a bad person, but admits she’s not a compassionate person by nature. Lately she has been seeking a sign of God’s presence in her world, and thinks that the chance encounter at an Otsego hotel was a lot more than just a chance encounter. “God put Ashley in the hotel lobby, underneath the chandelier like it was a spotlight,” Billman said.
For Bruzek, who admits she doesn’t smile because of the damage to her teeth, the kindness of a stranger has lifted her spirits. “You don’t find people who don’t want something in return,” she said. “I didn’t think people like her existed anymore, honestly.”
The two women have been in touch most every day since that first weekend, be it through Facebook messages or phone calls. “She really is changing my life for the better,” Bruzek said. “She’s got a friend for life.”
“I felt completely happy ever since this happened,” Billman said. “I just feel good, I really do.”
“That is my reward.”
Dental assistance offered
So how does Billman plan to help Bruzek? Billman had a little faith when she made her offer to Bruzek that Sunday afternoon, faith that her boss would help make it happen.
Billman’s boss, Dr. Haseen Syed, is the owner of Distinctive Dental Care, where Billman has worked for more than five years. Syed is driven by helping people more than the profit she derives from her dental practice, according to Billman. She was confident Syed would help her put a smile back on Bruzek’s face, and she was right.
“I saw a different person when I saw Grace that day, when she told me the story,” Syed recalled. “A lot of things suddenly became very positive.”
Bruzek’s dental issues are a result of damage from the accident, limited financial resources, ongoing facial reconstruction surgeries and a lifelong fear of the dentist. The first step in overcoming came earlier this month, when Bruzek made her first visit to Distinctive Dental Care.
Bruzek’s dental needs were uncertain as of mid-December, but Syed is looking forward to finding the solution. “It’s an awesome feeling to give someone a smile back,” she said. “If I can help somebody totally change their life, it is going to be wonderful.”