When Karl Smith learned his son, Bennett, was born with a birthmark known as a port wine stain over much of his right arm, chest, back and neck, the Scottsdale man remembered a girl he knew growing up.
The girl also was born with a blue-purple birthmark caused by super-sized capillaries, hers staining her face.
"No one really accepted her." Smith said. "She was always alone."
News of his son's birthmark two years ago, "made me really sad because I knew what it could be like," he said.
Today, Bennett's once maroon defect is a spotty blushing pink. By the end of the year, his doctor expects the mark to have faded to a perfect or near-perfect flesh color, thanks to a new laser machine and a pediatric dermatology center at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
The hospital began using the Vbeam laser in February, with the opening of the Valley's first pediatric dermatology center and the hiring of its director, Dr. Ronald Hansen, who relocated from Tucson.
Hansen has treated between 15 and 20 children with the Vbeam. But since it is the only one of its kind in the state, demand for the treatments indicates the numbers will grow quickly.
Port wine stains affect approximately 0.10 percent of all babies, and are caused by masses of defective, oversized capillaries near the surface of the skin. No one knows what causes them, Hansen said.
While the effects are mostly cosmetic, the defect often begins to bulge and darken after decades if not treated. If the defect occurs on the face, severe neurological problems including mental disabilities and paralysis can occur. In cases like Bennett's, where the defect covers most of a limb, the affected area can grow quicker and larger than the other limb.
Even in the absence of these complications, the social and mental impact of such a birth defect can be debilitating.
"It can ruin your life by growing up like that," Hansen said.
The Vbeam is the latest model in a 15-year-old series of of laser treatments for port wine stains. It achieves perfect results in about half of its patients, Hansen said. The other half are helped greatly, their deep purple port wine marks turned "to more of a rosé," Hansen said.
The laser beams go through the top layer of skin through a pen-like device. One laser pulse lasts less than a second and permeates a 7-millimeter area. A single treatment can require more than 4,000 pulses, each one of which feels like a rubber band snap, Hansen said.
Each patient requires between four and eight treatments. Patients are under general anesthesia for the out-patient procedure. The immediate results of the laser treatment look gruesome, bruised to a severe degree, Hansen said. These fade within several weeks.
Patients as young as a month can be treated, said Hansen who believes that younger patients have more success, both mentally and physically.
Bennett has undergone three treatments, and his port wine stain has faded considerably, his mother, Anne Louise, said.
"It is absolutely amazing," she said.
The laser treatments each cost between $1,500 and $4,000, and patients often have difficulty getting insurance approval, Hansen said.
The Smiths had little trouble, in part they believe, because Bennett's defect was affecting the physical growth of his arm. But Karl Smith said he was referred to a book written explicitly to help parents obtain insurance coverage for their children's port wine stain treatments.