Living With A Birthmark

Every year, an estimated 40,000 children are born with a vascular birthmark that requires the attention of a specialist other than the pediatrician.

While birthmarks may be indicative of serious medical conditions, they can also leave deep emotional scars. The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm reports.

It's a subject that is very personal to Storm, because she was born with one. The following is her story, but it's also the story of a courageous young girl and the advances that have been made in treating birthmarks since Storm was her age.

Lindsey Brown is a fourth grader from rural Connecticut. She has a quiet but feisty nature as a result of greeting the world each day with a large birthmark that covers almost half her face but was much more prominent at her birth.

Looking at baby pictures, Lindsay says,"Wow, that's how I looked when I was 1 year old?"

Her father, Doug Brown, says, "I thought it was going away and within a couple of weeks, reality set in and I knew it was not going away, and it makes you think, 'Oh, boy, this kid is going to have a tough road growing up.'"

Doug and Kathy Brown's pediatrician recommended they see a specialist - a dermatologist who diagnosed Lindsey's birthmark.

Dr. Roy Geronemus explains, "Lindsey has a port wine stain, which is a group of enlarged blood vessels. Everyone has blood vessels in the skin but Lindsey's are much larger than the normal area of the skin of a normal person who doesn't have a port wine stain."

Port wine stains can often be indicative of serious medical problems like glaucoma, seizure disorders and calcium deposits in the brain. Luckily, Lindsey had none of those. To lighten the birthmark her parents decided to have Lindsey undergo a series of laser surgeries, beginning when she was just 9 months old.

Doug Brown says, "The first treatment we did we didn't put her out, I actually held her with the doctor and we did it right in my arms."

Talking with Lindsey's family brought back a flood of memories for Storm. She was born with a port wine stain, smaller than Lindsey's, under her left eye. There was very little information about birthmarks at the time and her family received a variety of doctor's opinions.

Storm says, "They called it a lot of different things. We heard hemangioma, we heard port wine," She asks her mother Hannah Storen, "Did anybody ever talk to you about glaucoma or hemiperisis?"

"No," her mother replied. It was particularly challenging for her. "They mostly said give time and see how much it fades, and then from there we were advised that an excision could be made and that much of it would be removed," Hannah Storen says.

Beginning in third grade, Storm had a series of procedures, starting with a surgical excision in which doctors literally tried to cut the birthmark off of her face. That was followed by an unnatural looking tattoo, dermabrasion and laser surgeries, which left painful third-degree burns.

Storen notes, "But it looked like there was more of it after a year than we thought should be there. 'Oh, yes,' they said 'These little blood vessels regenerate.' Well, we didn't know that."

Storm adds, "I remember crying tears of frustration and anger that nothing had worked and also of doctors saying it would go away and it returned full force with scar tissue."

It's a common thread for people born with birthmarks - the pain is often emotional as well as physical.

Lindsay says, "Sometimes I don't like having it because people say rude things like, 'What happened to your face?' One lady said to my mom, 'You should watch your kid in the sun.' Makes me upset, I know they don't mean to say it, but it just happens and there's nothing I can really do about that."

Storm sympathizes with what Lindsay is going through. The co-anchor says, "Everybody here at work is used to seeing me roll in in the morning with no makeup.

Removing her make up, she says, 'Look, every time I walk out the door without my makeup on, usually, somebody asks a question and the worst question. A lot of people are like, 'Oh my gosh, what happened to you, what's wrong with your eye?' because it looks like a black eye. But the worst one and I get it all the time is 'Hey, who hit you in the eye? Did your husband hit you?' And it's not very funny,you know."

Thankfully, the treatment of birthmarks has advanced significantly even over the last few years, which is why Lindsey's family pursued further laser surgery several weeks ago.

Lindsey requires only numbing cream to dull the pain of the laser; some children require general anesthesia.

Dr. Geronemus explains, "What the laser does, is the laser goes through the skin, the top layer of the skin, into the blood vessels below and shrinks the blood vessels."

Storm confesses it is hard for her to see Lindsey in pain. She says, "It just breaks my heart to see her in pain. I know it's for the best. I know it's going to help her out in the long run but it just brings back memories of going in the hospital."

Thankfully, Lindsey's treatment is over in minutes.

Dr. Geronemus says, "It's a life-altering procedure, these children will feel different about themselves and will not have the medical consequences of the birthmark."

At first, Lindsey looks even worse but the purple bruises fade and so will her birthmark over the next few months.

Because of their birthmarks, both Lindsey and Storm have come to understand something very important: that self-esteem, confidence and even beauty come from inside.

Lindsey says, "I learned that it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside; it just matters what your character is."

Most people take a lifetime to learn that, but Lindsey is so wise at age 9. She's already been in her hometown newspaper. She's inspired a lot of people with telling her story.

She says she will have to go through one more surgery "and it will probably be gone."

As for Storm, she admits she didn't know much about birthmarks. She says, "It actually gets worse with age. They can thicken. Inspired by Lindsey, I might go back and have some treatment of my own."