Friday, February 28, 2014

A Baby, a Birthmark, and One Determined Mother Bear

"A lovely baby girl you have there. It's too bad about that awful birthmark."
Those are the first and last words I ever hear from your original pediatrician. After she leaves the delivery room, I tell the nurse to keep her away from us, and I cry myself to sleep.
My daughter. 7 pounds, 13 ounces, blonde hair, 21 inches long. To me, you're perfect.
But the first thing most people seem to notice is the huge, glaring red birthmark in the shape of Africa, extending down the middle of the forehead, from your hairline to just below your nose.
The day after your birth, I hire a different baby doctor, and unlike her predecessor she possesses decorum, common sense and bedside manners. She also has plenty of experience. But she doesn't have an answer for the mark she calls a 'strawberry hemangioma.'
"Sometimes they fade over the years," she tells me, "and sometimes they don't.''
We bring you home from the hospital the next day, and amid the bliss, chaos, sleeplessness, confusion and joy that comes with a first child, I am steeped in grief. In a world that demands female beauty, I envision your life with a marked, imperfect face.
I pretend to ignore the stares at the grocery store. I grow numb to the questions from little kids.
"What happened to her?"
"What's wrong with her face?"
"What's that on her head?"
I realize that we're lucky. Other parents have babies with far more serious problems than a red mark on the skin.
It doesn't help - I know how kids are. And every time I get an innocent, ignorant question from a child, I hear your future on the playground.
"What happened to you?"
"What's wrong with your face?"
"Ugh. What's that on your head?"
Secretly, I blame myself for this. I figure it's payback for the single 12-ounce can of Diet Coke I drank each day of my pregnancy. Or a punishment from God for some old, forgotten sin.
But those are my transgressions, not yours, and I cannot accept that in 1997, with all the advances in modern medical science, there's absolutely nothing that can be done for strawberry hemangiomas.
The small-town doctors continue to be of no help; the library has no current information. As a last resort, I sit down one day and fire up the computer. I dial into the new technology we had installed on our computer, the thing called World Wide Web.
I wade through America Online, chat rooms and online video games. I search for hours, and finally, eventually, I find some hope: newfound research on lasers for birthmarks, and - better still - a doctor who specializes in such treatments, about an hour away in Columbus.
His website states that several laser surgeries will be needed, and that insurance companies deem birthmark removal as "optional" or "cosmetic" and will not cover it. Patients must pay out-of-pocket. The costs will likely rise into the thousands.
I lunge for the phone.
You begin treatments as soon as you're old enough - about 13 months. The nurses lead us to a large, brightly lit room and a restraint called a papoose - a contraption that looks and sounds harmless enough, until they tie you down, diapers, teddy bear and all. Your dad and I squeeze in under the straps to hold your hands.
They tell us the pain won't be too bad - that it's like a repetitive sting with a rubber band - but they still apply numbing cream to your head.  We all put on protective goggles, and the doctor pulls the machine's arm over your body.
He begins searing your forehead with the laser. There's snapping, blinding light, some smoke, a smell.
"Don't worry," they say. "That's just a little bit of her hair burning."
You scream, and we can barely restrain ourselves from ripping off the straps. It lasts four minutes.
It lasts an eternity.
When the laser stops, they release you and I scoop you into my arms as your dad hurriedly scribbles a check. We get you into the car and to McDonald's as fast as we can, plying you with french fries, ice cream, whatever you want.
A few days later, the hemangioma turns black, a sign - albeit a terrifying one - of its blood vessels dying. Scabs form.
One afternoon, while I'm driving and you're out of sight in the baby seat, you pick off a scab and leave a large hole in your forehead. The nurse tells me to rub Vitamin E into the area and massage it for 15 minutes twice a day. I do, and you don't complain, despite the pain.
"It's going away," I tell you, while I rub. "I think it's going away!"
It's part prayer, part hope, part wish.
In truth, I'm not sure if it's going away. The first laser treatment's immediate result was worse - far more severe-looking - than the birthmark itself. I see your blackened skin and the hole in your forehead, and I seriously wonder if we've done the right thing.
The blackness eventually fades. We decide to continue with the treatment, the way the doctor recommends. You get one every few months. When you're old enough to understand, I try to explain.
"We're going to that doctor again - the one who gives you a tap-tap on the head," I say. "It will make your mark go away."
"Oh . . . I don't like him! I don't like the tap-tap!"
But, even as a toddler, other kids at daycare have started pointing at your birthmark. When they do, you duck your head and look at the ground.
About three surgeries in, you stop screaming when they strap you down. Only silent tears roll down your face.  
Each time, I worry whether it's the right decision. After the laser zaps your head and the immediate redness fades, I watch and wait for the mark to recede.
And slowly, imperceptibly, over two-plus years, many surgeries, countless tears, hundreds of french fries, thousands of dollars - I think, perhaps . . . just maybe . . .
"It goes away-goes away-goes away!" you say.
Three years old now, three feet tall, 29 pounds and many laser treatments later, you're standing atop the bathroom counter on tip-toes. You're looking in the mirror, holding your bangs up to peep at a smooth white forehead.
"Goes away-goes away!"
You don't realize it, but you're trying to parrot what I've been chanting since your first surgery.
"It is!" I say. "It's going away! I think it's going away!"
It is prayer, it is hope, it is wish.
And it is true.

More Perfection. Age 16

I'd like to thank my beautiful daughter for allowing me to publish this piece. We both hoped that maybe it could help someone who is unaware of laser birthmark removal--an amazing technology for which I am profoundly grateful.


  1. Oh I had tears for you and your beautiful girl (came here by way of Pearl). The things that we do in anticipation of the meanness of humanity - but what a gorgeous girl you have got there.

  2. Oh, Dawn. :-) I love you so much.

    There was a little girl in one of the elementary schools I went to with a birthmark that covered I'd say 70% of her face. She never looked up, and she rarely joined in. I wasn't there more than a year, and we never knew each other, but I know that that mark had a profound effect on her personality.

    Wonderfully told, my friend.


  3. I have something like that on my left arm. I am lucky, I saw many with it on their face and neck. I made jokes about it, calling my tattoo. You did the right thing.
    My younger daughter had to be brought to the doctor. To keep her still, her body was encased in clear plastic, arms up for the exam. I can still hear her cries, drowned out by my tears.
    Parenthood, not for everyone.

  4. Hi Jeanie! - Yes, my daughter is a beauty, and she's as kind as she is lovely. Thank you for stopping over!
    Pearlie - Aw. You know I love you to bits, too! The girl on the playground--we all knew someone like that, and I agree that these types of things shape personalities. I'm happy to say my daughter barely remembers any of this--she only vaguely remembers the "Tap-tap doctor," she doesn't remember all the stares. And that? Is awesome.
    Raymond--I'm with you on how hard it is, watching your child in pain and restrained. I hope I never have to see it again.

  5. How difficult it is to do the things that cause physical pain to our children, even when it is for their good in the long run. You absolutely did the right thing, and I'm sure your lovely daughter is grateful. :)

  6. Wow never knew. You did a made a hard choice but have a wonderful, kind and smart young lady. Mom's (& dad's) shape their kids in both physical and non physical ways.

  7. I'm glad for the advances in technology that make things like this possible.

    I had a relative who had a port wine stain on half his face. It profoundly affected him his entire life.

    I'm so glad the treatments worked, because yeah, people can be (and usually are) assholes.

  8. I have one of those as well, albeit not on my face. I'm not concerned with removing it or covering it up so it can stay.

    You did the right thing. I know it was hard, but you got thru it and she is beautiful. Congratulations!

  9. Linda - Thanks. I know now it was the right decision. All's well that ends well, huh? :)
    Melissa - Good point. And it's amazing how what happens in early childhood can shape a child, before they can even remember. That's why I wanted to get this done so early in her life.
    Barb - I know. It's not my usual smartassery, is it?
    Ami - Exactly. These things can define a person.
    Pixie - thanks! She is a doll.

  10. When I got to that beautiful face at the end, I got tearful.

    I hope that, since 1997, they've made great strides with the procedure. It was painful to read about what the three of you went through. I can't imagine those four minutes, or every subsequent trip thereafter. So glad it culminated in perfection.

    I'm always impressed with your writing, Dawn - the funny, sad, and serious. I laughed about McD's being the after-treatment go-to also. You're great parents. =)


  11. 2 of my 3 children were born with "stork bites" - a little on the forehead & under the nose - it's hereditary. EVEN MY DOCTOR, when seeing my kids would say, "Do they have a cold?" Ugh, NO.
    I was told it's highly common but no one seems to know what it is when I have to explain over & over again. My eldest's was really red. He is 5 now and it's 90% gone. Baby E's is milder but has it the worst on her eyelids. I notice people double take when they see her, especially if she's sleeping & showing her eyelids more.

    Ugh, people. xo

  12. What a wonderful, beautiful story. Especially with all the bad going on in the world today, you made me feel like all isn't lost. Thank you.

  13. i love a story with a happy ending! Your daughter is beautiful. My daughter also had a hereditary condition for which there was no cure and no real treatment, but not quite as visible as a birthmark on the face. She learned to deal with the questions at a young age and now as a parent she guides her daughter who inherited the same condition. We've all got challenges, but some of us get the ones that are more visible.

  14. Thank you for this post. Boy, those comments we get right after a baby is born can really devastate and stay with us!

    I think any parent who could afford it, would do what you did. My niece's head was bit misshapen when she was born, and my sis got her one of those clear plastic helmets that sort of re-shape the head as it grows, "So that she won't hate us when she's in middle school." She had to wear it for about a year.

    I really feel for the parents (and kids!) that I've seen when in Asia, whose kids have harelips and no money to fix them. This is a hard, hard world.

    My son has a bluish birthmark on the back of his hand. Most people think it is a bruise from an IV. He is 23 months old, recently noticed it and thought it looked like a bird or something, so he kissed it. :-) We thought that was a good start.

  15. Robyn - I bet they have made serious strides in the surgery since then. It was very new in 1998 or so. I'm just grateful it was there. She was definitely born at the right time. Thank you for your kind words! xo
    Lady E - Yes - many people called my daughter's mark a "stork bite," too, and she also had a little red mark under her nostrils. So glad your son's faded. People are indeed a-holes sometimes. Hang in there, let me know if you need anything!
    Al - Wow! That is high praise coming from you. Glad I could make you smile. I promise you, though, that I'll be back to my regularly scheduled smartassery ASAP. ;)
    Nana - I'm so glad that your daughter and granddaughter are OK and have learned to deal with the challenges they've been dealt. Sounds like they both have a great attitude!
    Jen - I LOVE the story about your son kissing his birthmark. Awesome! Yes - that doctor's comments on that particular day just leveled me, especially with the raging sea of hormones that come after childbirth. Not fun.

  16. I'm so glad your out come was positive. Reading it I was afraid something bad happened. I have a granddaughter who has a birthmark on her nose close to her eye. It is raised and I want it removed and didn't know where to start when I found your story. Can you tell me where you ended up taking her to what doctor?

  17. Hi Julie - Our Dr. "Tap Tap" here in Columbus was Dr. Richard Smialek. It looks like you can get a hold of him here:
    Or just google him. I have no idea where you are, but just google "laser birthmark removal" in that city. This all happened 15-odd years ago, and I know lasers have come a long way since then. Also - and I don't want to get your hopes up - but sometimes insurance companies will pay for removal if the birthmark affects a person medically, and I know that ones on the eye can sometimes affect the vision, and raised ones can also affect people medically.
    Let me know if you have anymore questions! I'm happy to help.

  18. Not your usual smartassery (You said it, not me!), but a fine piece. Your daughter is indeed gorgeous.

  19. What a beautiful baby and now young lady. Your daughter was blessed to have such caring parents who made such sacrifices for her eventual self esteem. I'm glad you were able to get the right care. I'm not sure what they are doing anymore in the pediatric dermatological world, but I bet it is quite advanced from when she was a baby.

  20. Oh, this is beautiful, as is your amazing daughter. My 17 year old has a two inch one just below her knee, and people still comment on it from time to time.

  21. Dawnsie, loved reading this piece (even tho I already knew the outcome;). Love both u & little Laura! U have overcome so much in ur life....being persistent for her well being was only natural for u! *hugs*

  22. I'm so happy for you and your daughter and the happy ending to your story. You made the right choice, although it was hard at first.

    (I found you through a link on the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop blogroll.)

    -- Barb

  23. Hi Dawn, this is a terrific piece. Kids have a tough time of it. Hats off to you for having the nerve to follow through when it was so distressing for your daughter. Indigo

  24. Jono - Stay tuned for our regularly scheduled smartassery!
    Stacey - I bet they have come a lont way with lasers. I hope we never have to see one again, though!
    Shelly - thank you, and I am so very glad you stopped in :)
    Amy Jo - I know you remember us going through this! Thanks for being such a great friend through all of it.
    Barbara - Thank you for stopping in from Erma! Are you going to the conference?
    Indigo - they do, don't they? It all worked out, though. Thanks, friend!

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  27. Ah, So difficult to watch your children suffer, I cannot imagine... what a lovely and inspiring article. And a lovely, brave girl! She was perfect as she was - society makes people believe otherwise, unfortunately.

  28. Wow, I can definitely relate to this! My daughter (who just turned four) has the same type of birthmark. Red, extending from the forehead down to her upper lip. (Except hers is the shape of Tinkerbell). On one hand, as you mentioned, there are far worse things to be afflicted with. On the other, we all know how cruel people can be, both young and old. Sometimes it's a simple "what is that mark? Did she fall?" But usually it's a "what's wrong with her face?" I recently spoke with an old acquaintance and he asked me about my daughter. "I haven't heard much about her. Just that she has some birth defect on her face." That one stung a little more than usual, for several reasons. I don't see it when I look at her, which is probably why the comments always catch me off guard. However, I am her mother. Of course it isn't what I notice when I look at her. The same is not true for strangers. And those words are what linger: wrong, defect, etc. Do I really want her to go through life associating herself with those descriptors? Unfortunately looks do matter, and it tends to be far worse for females.

    She's had three treatments so far, and it's faded tremendously. We go in for the fourth later this week. Thank you for posting this. You summed up the daunting experience wonderfully. Your daughter is beautiful, before and after.

  29. Hello Mrs. Dawn Weber My name is Katy Stewart and I was just reading a column you wrote about your daughter's birthmark and I couldn't help but say that I have almost the exact same Birthmark on my forehead!! Lol! . I was very surprised to see that someone else gad a big hemangioma on them to lol! I have to say The column about it seemed as though you where talking about me! The laser treatments Lord I remember and I won't forget HAHA! And when you said you weren't sure if you where doing the right thing by getting it removed well MAM YOU Where ABSOLUTELY Doing the right thing. Your Daughter is lucky to have a mother like you to do that for!!Trust me it was a challenge for me to get through But thanks to cover girl I am able to cover it up! Anyways I better stop while I'm ahead Thank you!! Katy Stewart

  30. My daughter is 8 months and we are doing the same treatments, 1 in already. Very hard to swallow but thus brought me some peace.

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