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Teri Sutherland offers advice for women in controlling relationships

By Staff | Aug 6, 2009


LAHAINA — It has been over two years since Teri Sutherland was shot in the throat by her estranged boyfriend, and today the physical healing is relatively complete to the point where she is back in her comfort zone in a classroom with 32 fifth-graders.

She will need to use a microphone apparatus for the rest of her teaching life, but to be able to breathe, swallow, and most of all, speak, is a miracle.

The ear, nose and throat specialist that was charged with putting Sutherland’s throat back together after her vocal chords had been severed and her voice box shattered (she also suffered a collapsed lung), let her know in no uncertain terms that the medical team’s first priority was to stabilize her airway to allow her to breathe and eat.

“For you to have any sort of voice is a miracle, let alone be able to teach again,” said the doctor.

“I always knew that the last thing they cared about was my speech, and their first priority was eating and breathing. Of course, my first priority was speaking!” Teri replied.

From left, Teri Sutherland, Leslie Hiraga and Connie Sutherland traveled to Europe in May 2008. They are pictured at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, “where my ancestors hung out,” Teri noted.

After three-and-a-half weeks in three different hospitals undergoing seven surgeries and continuous rehabilitation over the ten months following the shooting, Sutherland went back to work at Canyon Crest Elementary School as a fifth grade teacher in February 2008. She continues the physical and speech therapies to this day, including an extremely painful treatment of her vocal chords to try to get them back to normal.

On Oct. 15, 2007, the bullet was removed from her neck, and the painful injection treatments for her vocal chords began. After being on her back for so long, she had to work to get her strength and stability back, as well as the priorities of her breathing and swallowing mechanisms. “The main functions of the vocal chords are breathing and eating, while speaking is an auxiliary function,” she explained.

Sutherland is happy to be back in the classroom and was warmly welcomed back by the staff and students of the school, where she was nominated for teacher of the year honors in the 2008-09 term. She is recognized as a quality educator at Canyon Crest, and her colleagues rallied to her support during and after the ordeal.

“It was really good to be back at school with them — comforting to get back to my normal life,” Teri explained. “My students call me Superteacher — like Superman — for being able to stop a bullet with my throat like the Man of Steel.”

The bottom line here is that Sutherland is a dedicated teacher who truly cares about the education of children and the welfare of the future of society.

“I put my all into my teaching, and my colleagues have acknowledged that with their support,” she said. Teri has been recognized for being a teacher who truly cares about her kids meeting their goals and motivating them to do so.

While the treatment for, and the results of, the physical injuries Teri Sutherland suffered from the shooting are clear and concise, the emotional wounds and healing are more complicated. She said that the transition back to work a year-and-a-half ago was not difficult, and that her life remains full with her German Shepherd puppy, weekly Bible studies, and weekends with Yoshio — an 11-year-old boy whose mother died when he was six — on outings and to church.

“I don’t have a man in my life just yet, but if you know of any middle-aged hotties, please let me know,” said Teri. “I am truly happy and content.”

 In August of 2007, Teri came home to Lahaina to help celebrate mom Connie’s birthday and to enjoy a “recovery” party with her classmates and friends. “It was a wonderful time of a potluck and cake. These were people that I hadn’t seen for many years, and they all came over to welcome me home. I feel truly blessed,” she said.

Then, in May of 2008, Teri, mom Connie and sister Leslie Hiraga took a trip to Europe to celebrate her recovery. “We went to Scotland and Ireland to visit the County of Sutherland and the castle where our family roots are, and on to England to see the Chelsea Flower Show,” said Hiraga. “This was really, really good for all of us. It was therapeutic to share our stories with each other.”

One of the darker stories they shared revolved around Teri’s relationship with her boyfriend of 20 years. “It took a long time for Teri to realize that she was in an abusive and controlled relationship,” Hiraga said. “Our family was always unhappy with the relationship, and Teri felt guilty about it.”

“He (her ex-boyfriend) was angry that he lost control over me, that he could manipulate me,” said Teri. “The one thing someone who is controlling wants to do is isolate you from everyone including friends, family, church, everyone. They will threaten anything you hold dear; they know your triggers! I had been separated from him for a month before he tried to kill me, and he had tried everything he could to win me back, except really changing — and this is called manipulation.”

“During the month before being shot, I felt like a burden had been lifted off of me — no more accounting for every minute of my day; no more defending myself over stupid jealously statements. I firmly believe that had I died that fateful day in Von’s, it would have been better than spending one more second under someone else’s control.”

Perhaps most important, Teri urges other women in similarly abusive situations to seek help to get out of controlling or violent relationships.

 “If you are in a controlling relationship, know that there is a way out — even if they threaten to kill you. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to see a counselor, psychiatrist, life coach or any professional. Friends and family are great for support, but you need an objective listener. I realize that you don’t want to go through telling your story more than once, because it is emotionally draining; but trust me, it is worth it,” she explained.

Pema Gilman, the program coordinator and advocate of Lahaina Women Helping Women, concurs. “Domestic violence crosses all sectors of society, and people need to realize that help is available — they are so locked into their lives that they are unaware of the social services that can help. They are also ashamed of their lives and think that nobody will believe them,” she said.

Gilman stated firmly, “We will believe you. We will provide safety for you and your children, but it takes time. You don’t have to live in the situation you are in, but you need to find the courage to tell what you haven’t been able to tell anyone. You need to realize the strength you have to be a survivor.”

According to Gilman, there are way more domestic violence incidents occurring than are reported. What we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg; the abuse knows no boundaries.

“We are dealing with more and more women every day calling in and more people in the emergency shelters. Our bottom line at Women Helping Women is to solve the barriers in the way of safety for these women,” Gilman said.

To contact Lahaina Women Helping Women, call 661-7111; in Wailuku, dial 242-0775; on Lanai, call 565-6700; or call the emergency hotline at 579-9581.

Teri’s parting message in this story is, “It is by God’s grace that I am alive and can speak. It is due to family, friends and community that I am recovering. If by chance on April 15 you actually think of me, please celebrate with me, as I will be celebrating having a blessed life and beautiful family and friends. Thank you all for being there, I love all of you very much!”