“What's that on her head?”
It was my daughter Chloe's second day on earth, and already the mom anxiety had kicked in over what looked like a bruise just above her forehead. “That's just a hemangioma birthmark. It might get a little bigger, but it will go away by the time she's two,” the pediatrician told me. Google gave me more details: A hemangioma, often called a strawberry, is a benign blood-vessel tumor. One in ten babies (usually girls) will develop one.
My husband, Justin, and I tried to laugh it off as we fell madly in love with our Baby Gorbachev. But as Chloe grew, the hemangioma showed no signs of shrinking. In fact, it had ballooned to the diameter of a golf ball, and was puffed ominously full of blood. People who knew Chloe saw a spunky, smiley and beautiful kid; strangers just stared at that thing on her head. The pediatrician brushed off my concerns, saying it was just a cosmetic issue. But I couldn't help the nagging feeling that her birthmark would always enter the room before she did.
I made an appointment with a plastic surgeon my pediatrician begrudgingly referred me to. Chloe and I sat in the waiting room surrounded by pamphlets for rhinoplasty and chin implants. It felt blasphemous. Shouldn't I be teaching my kid that you can't judge a book by its cover? Plus, I'd kill her if she ever got a boob job.
Then, through online research, we found the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation and Milton Waner, M.D., who wrote the book on hemangiomas. (No, seriously. He wrote a book called Hemangiomas and Vascular Malformations of the Head and Neck.) He told me that most pediatricians don't know a lot about hemangiomas, which can actually take as long as a decade to resolve, plenty of time for it to do a number on a child's self-esteem. Chloe's was just past her hairline, so even after it faded, she'd be left with a large hairless section. I pictured bullies. My gut told me Chloe would not appreciate going to junior high with a bald spot.
After discovering that insurance would cover some of the cost, we scheduled the surgery for May 3, 2007. Chloe was barely 2 years old.
Surgery day was a mix of the mundane (keeping her distracted) and the awful (holding her down while the nurses put her under). When the surgery was done, we heard her scream from the recovery room. I ran in and cradled her, staring at the stitched gash. Seconds later, everyone was asking if I was OK.
Chloe is now in second grade, with long blond hair. (When you part it on the right side, it hides the three-inch scar.) On a recent trip to the supermarket, she glanced at a magazine cover detailing a starlet's plastic surgery.
“Why do people do that?” she asked. “People are usually better off with what they're born with,” I told her—and hoped someday to find a way to explain “usually.”