HERMOSA BEACH — It wasn't until recently that Melissa Sexton knew that there was a scientific name for the reddish birthmark that sweeps across the left side of her face.
But the 12-year-old girl from the factory town of Paris, Ill., knew all about what happens to children who have them.
"People make fun of you," she said. "Boys tell you you're dumb and ugly."
Melissa's 32-year-old mother, Katrina, said that her daughter's hemangioma--the medical term for an abnormal enlargement of blood vessels that form a red blotch--turned her into a shy child who is uncomfortable around strangers.
Never Had Boyfriend
"She's at an age when she'll start dating," Katrina Sexton said. Melissa smiled when her mother called her "backward around boys."
"I would like a boyfriend," she said. "I've never had one."
And if everything goes according to plan, Melissa may no longer have to listen to teasing--or to boys calling her ugly--as the birthmark gradually fades through laser surgery, in which a powerful beam of light is absorbed by the skin, lessening or eliminating skin conditions.
She took the first steps this week at the Hemangioma Foundation of Southern California in Hermosa Beach, where dermatologist Laurence M. David did preliminary tests to determine how much laser power is needed to treat Melissa's hemangioma.
"It went real well," said David, who started the foundation more than a year ago to boost awareness about treating the affliction and to provide help for people--such as Melissa--who cannot afford to pay for surgery. He said that if blood vessels in the test areas begin to get smaller and the redness fades, Melissa will return within a few months and have the entire hemangioma treated.
"I'm excited," Melissa said, "but I'm also scared because it might not work."
David said hemangiomas--which afflict one of every 200 babies born in the United States--are the "most common of all congenital defects." Hemangiomas commonly are small and inconspicuous. But on the face, they can be psychological nightmares and can lead to glaucoma and blindness.
He said parents have emotional problems about their children's hemangiomas from the start--"We all want perfect children"--and these problems catch up with the children when they enter school and find themselves facing taunts or questions about what is wrong with them.
"They handle it in every way," he said. "Some are very aggressive and develop behavior problems. Others are reclusive and withdrawn. Some gain strength because they don't get along on their looks. They develop other characteristics in their personality."
While women may have some success in covering them with makeup, David said adults with hemangiomas have problems in jobs where appearance is a strong factor. "When businessmen come to have theirs taken off, they tell me they're doing it because if they are going to make a sale, and they get 15 minutes with the head of the company, they don't want to spend 10 minutes talking about birthmarks."
Ignored by Medicine
As common as hemangiomas are, David said they are something that medicine largely ignored until the laser began emerging as a medical tool a decade ago.
"We could not help before; we were totally impotent," said David, adding that approaches such as radiation, freezing and burning, and tattooing did not work. "The most we could tell a patient was to go get some makeup and wear it. Now, we have a treatment and we have some results."
That treatment is the laser, which concentrates light energy and applies heat that prompts the body to deposit layers of collagen--fibrous materials that support skin structure--around the enlarged blood vessels. This collagen, in turn, contracts the blood vessels, causing them to become thinner and less red. Hemangiomas can disappear completely, although some do not.
David said he started his foundation in November, 1985, to interest more doctors in treating hemangiomas, to inform the public "which has no understanding of them unless they occur in the family," and to provide treatment for people who have no way to pay for surgery.
40 Have Been Helped
The foundation receives eight to 10 letters a week from people asking for help. A selection committee goes through the letters and checks the financial condition of the people, but the final decision about who is helped is made by David and foundation administrator Louise Deschamps. So far, about 40 people from across the nation have been helped.
Need and severity are the two biggest factors in determining whom to help, David said, adding that Melissa--one of six children--is the kind of person the program is made for. "She has absolutely no way of getting treated--no insurance, no money, no anything. That's why God made charity."
David said her treatment normally would cost $2,000 to $3,000. "To her, that could be $2 or $3 million."