Orangeburg, SC (WLTX) - Second worst in the nation; that's where South Carolina ranks when it comes to the number of women killed at the hands of domestic violence.

On Monday morning, the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department held a press conference to kick off Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Orangeburg deputies say that last year, they responded to more than 2,450 domestic violence calls and that out of thirteen homicides, five were the result of domestic abuse.

"That is not just another statistic," said Chandra McPherson, a victims advocate with the Sheriff's Department. "That is another reality that many lives are forever changed because their loved ones have been lost to this tragic epidemic."

Among those at the press conference was a woman named Heather Thomas, a domestic abuse survivor.

"Never thought it... never thought," Thomas said as she tried to gather her thoughts, "anything like that never crossed my mind."

Like many, Thomas never thought she would be a domestic abuse victim.

"I grew up in a very healthy Christian environment. My parents have been married for over 50 years."

The Orangeburg County native and mother had been in a relationship for two years.

"My friends would say, 'do you not see this?'. And I think I was so consumed by the relationship and I almost got used to the things that he did."

Although abusive relationships often appear in bruises, many of Thomas' scars were internal.

"He was extremely possessive. It was more verbal and mental. He had made threats before saying if I can't be with you, no one else is gonna be with you."

On January 3rd, 2009 the verbal abuse turned physical.

"I had been taking steps to try to get away from him."

That night Heather's ex-boyfriend broke into her home and held her at gunpoint. After pleading for her life her abuser eventually turned the gun on himself.

"I definitely think of myself as a survivor."

Today, Thomas is speaking out and has a message for domestic abuse victims.

"They shouldn't be afraid to come forward . I know it can be difficult but there are people out there that can help. There is life after this and it can be a very good life."

Currently Heather Thomas is getting her degree in criminal justice and maintains a 3.8 grade point average. She chose that field because she wants to help others go from being "victims" to "survivors" just like she has.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, click here.

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