Child's pain evolves into adult's glory
November 26, 2002
BY DESIREE COOPER
DETROIT FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Karen Williams is a self-assured, Wayne County public health professional with a master's degree in teaching. She's working on her second master's -- this one in medical humanities. A single homeowner, she's also a published writer and an award-winning poet. Karen's a woman who knows who she is, but these days her life challenge is learning to embrace the person she used to be.
Born in 1962 in Inkster, she grew up an average American girl who loved limericks and ballet dancing. And like so many of her classmates, she contracted chicken pox at 7.
But while most kids sprout bumps that, with the help of calamine lotion, turn into scabs and fade away, Karen was left with large, bloated scars called keloids. Caused by the excessive production of collagen, keloids are common among African Americans.
The permanent disfigurement turned her childhood upside down. At school, Karen became known as Chicken Pox Girl. She was shunned, pummeled with stones and tortured on the playground.
"I wondered, 'Why me?' " said Karen. "Why had I been born?"
In 1969, her parents took her to Henry Ford Hospital to be treated by Dr. Clarence Livingood, a well-respected dermatologist. The doctor's patience and compassion eased the little girl's fears of the painful, steroid injections. The treatments lasted 5 years, until Karen entered adolescence. Then, Livingwood gave her the option to stop treatment in hopes that her coming growth spurt would reduce the scars.
"I decided to stop treatments and learn to live the best I could in my own skin," said Karen.
Hurt gives rise to hope
At 40, Karen's physical scars have receded. If you met her, you might wonder if she'd been burned as a child, or suffered from severe acne.
But it's her emotional scars that have been harder to overcome. Deciding it was time to come face to face with her past experiences, she began to write about her facial disfigurement.
She tried to find her old medical records, but all that remained of her thick file was 16 pages. She tried to contact her beloved Dr. Livingwood, but was devastated to discover he'd died of leukemia in 1998. But a helpful clerk was able to find a single file bearing Karen's name among the doctor's personal affects. It contained five photos of a wide-eyed, 7-year-old dressed only in her stark-white underpants, displaying the shocking array of scars.
"I thought, 'My God, he kept them,' " said Karen.
To confront that frightened child again was a moment of reckoning. "I realized I needed to release that little girl and let her know she's grown up into a good person," said Karen. "She didn't let past pain stop
her from becoming who God meant her to be."
That was six years ago. Now her research is shaping into a memoir. An excerpt called "Biography of a Scar," was selected by National Public Radio commentator Tavis Smiley to include in his anthology, "Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America," (Doubleday, $22.95).
"You go through a disfiguring or discouraging circumstance, and you become nearsighted," said Karen. "You can't see how your experience was meant to make you better, not bitter. God has given me the capacity to move beyond that myopia and help others. That's why I'm being spiritually let to share my story."