Cutting-edge laser vaporizes tattoos New tool hailed as 'breakthrough'

ANNE ARUNDEL HEALTH

January 19, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

There's one fundamental problem with tattooing "Lind Forever" on your forearm. You might marry Jane.

Dr. Ross Van Antwerp has heard that story, or variations of it, dozens of times since he bought a state-of-the-art laser that effectively removes tattoos three months ago.

"Their wives call; they want it off. They say, 'I don't care if you use a hacksaw,' " said the Severna Park internist. "Many are people who got tattooed two decades ago and for the last decade and a half, have wanted to get them off."

Until September, Dr. Van Antwerp refused to remove tattoos, fearing that other laser machines would destroy skin pigmentation and leave scar tissue as noticeable as the tattoo.

But then he acquired a Medlite laser by Continuum Biomedical Inc. of Calif., which produces quicker laser pulses at two different wavelengths, doesn't destroy pigment or soft tissue and doesn't leave scars.

"Before this became available, you were almost always trading a tattoo for a scar," he said.

The laser also is used to remove age spots and birth marks.

Dr. Steven B. Snyder, the first Maryland doctor to obtain a Medlite laser, said he has been removing tattoos with it since May and says he has never had a problem with it.

"I'd say it's a breakthrough," said Dr. Snyder, a dermatologist with a practice in Owings Mills. "It's possible to completely remove a tattoo without the risk of scarring. This is clearly a superior way."

Although many clients want their tattoos removed because they are tired of them or embarrassed, not all are looking for tattoo-free complexions.

Some, who are tattooed head-to-foot, simply want to replace an earlier effort that no longer lives up to their standards, Dr. Snyder said.

Others want to keep a tattoo, but want the name of a former spouse or lover removed from the middle of it. And some say they have simply made a mistake.

"They come in two days after they got it and want it removed. They're shocked by the permanence of it," Dr. Snyder said.

On Friday, the Rev. Tom Perrera, a former jockey who is now a nondenominational minister, was in Dr. Van Antwerp's office off Ritchie Highway for his third laser treatment for a dozen assorted tattoos.

Mr. Perrera, 47, got his first tattoo at age 11. Years ago, he said, he grew ashamed of the various designs and names adorning his arms and hands.

"It was stupid, a real mistake," he said. "What do you associate with it? I'd say foolishness."

As the doctor zapped the tattoos, sparks flew, and a crackling sound came from a small piece of plastic between the instrument and his patient's skin.

Mr. Perrera sat, calmly telling his story, without so much as a flinch.

Although the procedure turns the skin red and draws some blood, most patients report it is not that painful and choose to get the treatments without a local anesthetic, said both doctors.

"It kind of stings, like a slight bee sting over and over," said Mr. Perrera.

"Let's put it this way, it hurt more to get them on than it does to get them off," said Jeffrey Heide, 25, of Pasadena.

He decided to get the laser treatments for his tattoos after he got married.

"My wife doesn't like them," he explained.

Mr. Heide, like many of Dr. Van Antwerp's patients, has $l "homemade" tattoos that he created with ink and a needle. Homemade tattoos typically require one or two treatments to erase; professional tattoos, where the concentration of ink is greater, take three or four treatments.

Each treatment costs $200 to $300, and might cost significantly more if a client has a lot of tattoos or particularly large ones. Dr. Van Antwerp reduces the fee after the first two visits. The process, which is considered cosmetic, is not covered by insurance.

vTC The machine, which costs $78,000, is not likely to be popping up in many doctors' offices. To the best of his knowledge, Dr. Van Antwerp said he and Dr. Snyder are the only two physicians in Maryland to have the machine.

Even though patients are paying for the costly treatments out-of-pocket, there is no shortage of people -- men and women -- eager to loose the skull and snake, large heart with "mother" written in it or the dainty flowers planted permanently on some portion of the anatomy.

"We get two to three calls a day," said Dr. Van Antwerp. "Some people have waited 20 years to do this."

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