Marianne Kelly gives aid with appearance Healing Images

March 12, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Most of all, Marianne Kelly remembers the embarrassment.

She felt her face redden and the tears come when, after surgery for a brain tumor, an unthinking aide tugged away the scarf that hid Mrs. Kelly's bald head from the world.

"She said, 'Oh, your face is pretty. You don't need that,' " Mrs. Kelly recalls. "It was dreadful. . . . My dream was that nobody should feel this lost and alone."

As the founder of Union Memorial Hospital's Image Recovery Center, Mrs. Kelly is making that dream come true. In a world where medicine is more commonly dispensed in an IV tube than a mirrored compact, she uses prostheses, cosmetics and wigs to bolster the self-esteem of clients whose appearances -- and lives -- have been altered by illness and trauma.

"Doctors perform their miracles of science, but that's as far as they go," says Mrs. Kelly, a licensed cosmetologist. "When you have a patient who's waking up horribly depressed because she's losing her hair, that becomes an important part of healing."

Three months ago, she opened the center -- a small, aqua-colored room with Oriental carpets, mirrors and a rack of clothing for mastectomy patients -- and has nearly 80 clients, including teens, men and patients from other hospitals. (Many hospitals offer the American Cancer Society's Look Good . . . Feel Better program to deal with similar issues for women cancer survivors.)

Blond and soft-spoken, Mrs. Kelly -- who is married to Union Memorial president Edward J. Kelly III -- projects a quietly upbeat presence. Like a candy striper for Elizabeth Arden, she loads up her hospital cart with makeup, wigs and skin-care pamphlets to set out for the cancer unit. In the course of a day, she moisturizes a patient's parched face, cloaks another's balding head in a stylish turban and researches cosmetic ways to make artificial hands look more natural.

Volunteering 50 hours a week has curtailed her private business as a corporate image consultant, but she says the program serves a need she first discovered nearly 20 years ago.

In the spring of 1976, her 4-year-old daughter, Dana, was diagnosed with leukemia. She watched helplessly as chemotherapy made the child's hair fall out and steroids made her skin smell strange. At one point, her stomach grew so bloated she could only wear loose-fitting slacks.

For a year, Mrs. Kelly devoted time to finding clothes that didn't irritate Dana's skin and wigs small enough for her head, but still her daughter became the butt of jokes.

"The children used to make fun of her and call her 'the little old lady,' " she says. "As a parent, you cry a lot. Then you try to tell them, 'You are a little different right now, but you'll be better. Your hair will grow back.' "

Her daughter recovered, but Mrs. Kelly had a second encounter with serious illness six years ago. After six weeks of "horrifying" headaches, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery took 13 hours and eventually revealed the growth was benign. But she was left with paralysis of an eye muscle and weakness in her limbs. Her head was shaved. She wore an eye patch. And the self-image of this stylish woman was in shambles.

After 35 days, she left the hospital. Her first project was to find a wig. Car rides left her so ill, though, that she had to rest in the back seat as her parents drove her to wig shops.

"Social workers asked, 'How are you doing?' " she says. "But no one asked, 'How do you feel about your appearance?' "

She believes her experience gives her credibility with those she treats.

"I've been there," says Mrs. Kelly, 44, who lives in Ruxton. "I know depression. It's thinking, 'I can't go out and let anyone see me.' "

At times, though, Mrs. Kelly has had to wage an image campaign for the center itself, convincing some medical professionals that it had a legitimate purpose and wasn't a hobby for the boss' wife.

"There were some who had their noses up in the air and said, 'Why are you bringing a beauty salon into a hospital?' " she says.


But if she's had critics, Mrs. Kelly also has made fans.

'Dignity parlor'

"I would call it a dignity parlor, myself," says Russell Hibler, behavioral medicine coordinator for Union Memorial. "What's happening with these folks is more than skin-deep. Literally, what she's involved in doing is giving them a new lease on life. Many people see themselves as declining, losing. They haven't had much of a reason to think otherwise. She actually helps put the brakes on and shows them that it's possible to reverse the tragic chain of events."

Peggy Richards, who was treated for uterine cancer several months ago at Union Memorial, recalls the first time she looked in the mirror after chemotherapy.

"You notice dark circles under your eyes and no hair. No eyebrows. Your eyelashes are falling out," says Mrs. Richards, -- 33. "My first thought was: 'What is everyone else going to think when they look at me?' "

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