Burn Survivor Turned Tragedy Into Opportunity To Help Others

March 24, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

SHE DOESN'T HAVE EYEBROWS, so she pencils them on. She lacks eyelashes so she pastes false ones on. Discolored scars run down the center of her face, so she hides them with an opaque paste.

Four years ago, on a sunny winter's day, Lawanda ConawaFales of Owings Mills was driving to work on Interstate 70 outside Baltimore when a huge truck rear-ended her automobile, setting off a gas-tank fire that literally burned her face off.

A passer-by pulled her from the fiery wreck, and she was rushed to the Francis Scott Key Medical Center with burns that a plastic surgeon considers "among the worst I've ever seen." She endured about 30 operations, and today she shares her surgeon's pride over the new look he created with state-of-the art techniques of skin grafting.

But Ms. Fales wasn't completely satisfied with her appearance, and she parlayed both her personal tragedy and prior experience as a licensed cosmetician into a new career in the fledgling field ++ of corrective makeup. Today, she occupies an office at the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at Francis Scott Key Medical Center -- one of only two hospitals in the United States that employs a makeup artist for burn survivors.

Her job, as she sees it, is to teach burn victims how to apply makeup themselves -- using just the right repertoire of creams and powders to suit their needs: "My job is to make it simple. To make it something they can do every day. It enhances their self-esteem, helps them go into the world and smile."

Many of her colleagues at Key marvel at the way she turned personal misfortune into an opportunity to help others. Before the crash, Ms. Fales had been a beautiful young woman with modeling experience, a full-time job with a mortgage company and a wedding just two weeks away.

"I was young, in my early 20s. You can't get those years back. They are years when people dream, when people have fun. For a long time, I wished I would die. Why would I have to live with such a fate? When people told me I'd get better, I didn't believe it.

"I was due for a promotion, making plans for the future. The future was pretty much cut off at the pass when that truck hit me. I was quite depressed."

She told her fiance to leave her. "I tried to push him out. I didn't want pity. I was always a prideful person."

There were weeks when she would walk down the street wearing a plastic face mask and her horrible scars, eyes fixed on the sidewalk so she wouldn't have to see anyone's reaction. "I was in the grocery store and I saw someone I knew -- lo and behold, she almost jumped out of her skin. She screamed and yelled."

"Over time, things did get better," Ms. Fales says, adding that there was no one turning point. She credits a supportive family, ++ including the young man who rejected her pleas that he leave and eventually married her. Others who have observed her say much of the credit has to go to her.

"She's a very exceptional woman, who has ultimately resolved ++ this," says Linda Rice, a psychologist who counsels burn survivors at Key. "She is what we would like to see ultimately as the resolution of a burn injury -- not only accepting it but incorporating it in active involvement with other burn victims."

"For her to come back and be as bright and to have the goal to help others and turn this misfortune around is a wonderful thing," says Dr. Robert Spence, her plastic surgeon.

Burns covered one quarter of Ms. Fales' body, including 96 percent of her face. The fire penetrated all layers of skin across her face and part of her scalp, exposing the underlying bed of fat and blood vessels while leaving patches of black carbon.

To heal the initial injury, Dr. Spence scaled off the charred skin and replaced it with thin sheets of skin taken from other sections of her body. But this was a temporary fix. Later, he removed those grafts entirely and replaced them with two large sheets of full-thickness skin taken from the chest area beneath each shoulder. In other procedures, he worked at giving her lips, nose, eyes and chin the proper contours -- or something close to it. "We strive for as much normality as we can."

Today, Ms. Fales searches continually for cosmetics that can give patients an extra degree of realism that surgery cannot achieve. Recently, she started experimenting with a pliable Lucite paste that Hollywood makeup artists use to achieve special effects, both beautiful and gruesome.

And she counsels burn victims about coping with the wrenching emotional problems that persist despite the physical strides they may make through surgery and cosmetics. She urges them to seize control -- even of the people who shriek and stare.

"You have to realize that they always have a preconceived notion of what you're like. You smile at them, neutralize their reactions. We have to take control of our environment. That's what it takes."

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