By Carly Weeks
It’s often said that emotional scars are more painful than physical wounds. But for those who bear the marks of accidents or domestic violence, the outward scars can serve as painful, unwanted reminders of the past.
While it’s possible to undergo treatment to reduce the appearance of raised, red marks that can cover the face or body, such procedures are often costly and can be too much for some people to afford.
Now, DLK on Avenue, a cosmetic laser surgery clinic in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville neighbourhood, is offering new hope to people who want to live free of their unsightly scars but don’t have the means to do it.
“Our health care system does not pay for services deemed cosmetic so unfortunately there are many children and adult victims of violence who are unable to experience the improvements in scars, birthmarks and other disfiguring skin disorders that laser treatment can accomplish,” says George Diavolitsis, BA’98 (Visual Arts), who manages business strategy and development for the clinic.
The idea of ‘DLK Cares’ came from Dr. Lisa Kellett, who studied science at Western from 1986 to 1988, earned her MD from U of T and returned to Western for her residency and interned in internal medicine from 1992 to 1994.
Principal dermatologist at DLK on Avenue clinic, her list of clients includes Hollywood celebrities who come to her so she can zap away brown spots, wrinkles, spider veins and stretch marks. But what many people don’t know is that Kellett devotes a substantial – and growing – portion of her time to helping victims of abuse or accidents regain confidence in their physical appearance. And she does it all free of charge, on a volunteer basis.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for them to move on because people will say ‘What’s wrong with your face, what happened there?’ It’s like a constant reminder,” says Kellett. “I do it because it’s my way of giving back. It’s also my way of sharing this awesome technology. It’s a shame to just have one segment of the population be able to use it.”
For the last few years, the DLK on Avenue clinic has been opening its doors to children who have scars as the result of abuse or injury. They are referred to by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and undergo a series of laser treatments that help reduce the appearance of scars. Children the clinic treats may have suffered serious burns, dog bites, been injured in a car accident, or have congenital problems that the dermatologist can address.
“It makes a scar flatter, smoother and less red,” says Dr. Kellett. “Those are the biggest things.”
Patients who want to take advantage of the free laser treatment only have to meet a few conditions before they receive treatment in the clinic. First, they shouldn’t be able to afford the procedure on their own. They also have to be good candidates for laser surgery. And, in lieu of payment, Kellett asks the patients she treats to do a good deed for someone else.
“This to me is one of the truly most inspiring aspects of working for Dr. Kellett, and I know as a manager at her clinic that she inspires all our staff in much the same fashion,” says Diavolitsis.
Stefania Santelli is one of the people who is living proof of the positive impact DLK’s free laser treatment service can have on a person’s life. Stefania, a 20-year-old student from York University, was just a toddler when an accident in her family’s home left her with three visible scars on her face. Stefania and her older sister were playing in the bathroom when she was injured. Stefania had been sitting on the sink and grabbed onto the towel rack as she tried to lower herself to the floor. Even though she was just four at the time, the glass-and-ceramic towel rack couldn’t hold her weight. It fell to the floor and shattered, injuring Stefania’s face.
Doctors had told her she needed to wait until she got older and her face matured before she could have treatments to reduce the scarring from the accident. In that time, Stefania said she became self-conscious about the marks on her face and remembers coming home crying after her peers questioned and even insulted her physical appearance. “There was many times when people would be like ‘Oh, you have lipstick on your face and that really bothered me,” says Stefania.
But all that changed when her doctor referred Stefania to the clinic. Stefania said she has noticed a major difference in her face and can no longer see the dark, deep, red scars that have been on her face for years. Now, Stefania said she feels confident and is no longer self-conscious about her appearance. “It’s been such a difference,” Stefania said. “Dr. Kellett helped me and I know the way it made me feel. Knowing that other children have an option now, it’s a good feeling. It’s really nice.” The clinic has been overwhelmed with interest from plastic surgeons and patients since it began the free service several years ago.
In fact, it has been so successful that Dr. Kellett recently decided to expand her services to the victims of domestic violence. Women who have had their faces and bodies disfigured by cigarette burns, knife wounds and even gun shots have come to DLK on Avenue for physical as well as emotional healing.
“It significantly affects their lives,” says Kellett. “They often are quite teary as they see the improvement it just makes them feel better about themselves.” Not all women the clinic helps are victims of domestic violence. Nadia McLean came for treatment after she made national headlines when someone threw a chunk of concrete from an overpass on Highway 401 near Oshawa, Ont. Nadia’s injury was the result of a “very rare act of violence” between people who didn’t know each other, Dr. Kellett said.
Many times, the women treated at DLK have been through emotionally and physically traumatic experiences at the hands of people they care about. And Kellett has learned that helping to erase the appearance of their physical wounds plays a major role in their emotional healing as well. “For good or for bad, we’re judged on our appearance,” Dr. Kellett said. “It will kind of restore their faith in humanity, that there are lots of good people out there, even though something bad has happened.”