Disfigured to get help over emotional scars

An NHS unit is set to support people with problems facing the public
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THE scars on the personality left by terrible scars on the face will be treated at a pioneering rehabilitation unit being set up next month. at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol. Embarrassment, shyness and loss of self-esteem felt by people with severe facial disfigurement will be the subject of counselling programmes.

More than 400,000 people in Britain are seriously affected by some form of disfigurement, according to a 1989 survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.

Every year about 8,000 patients are admitted to burns units, 800 babies are born with a cleft lip or palate, and a similar number have a facial birth mark. A further 200 children a year are born with cranio-facial defects and there are 40-50,000 operations a year for head or facial cancer. Although many hospitals offer medical treatment for people thus affected, the Bristol unit will be the first in the NHS to concentrate on offering support for the emotional as well as the physical scars.

It is the brainchild of James Partridge, a former economist, medical researcher and farmer, who was severely burned in a car crash at the age of 18 and subsequently underwent nearly 50 operations.

Four years ago, Mr Partridge wrote a book about coming to terms with his injuries and in 1992 set up Changing Faces, a support organisation for those with facial disfigurements.

Changing Faces has developed social skills workshops to help such people come to terms with social problems they encounter.

The group is co-ordinating the Frenchay unit, which has £45,000 of Department of Health funding for the next three years and will draw on the services of psychologists from the University of the West of England, and a range of hospital doctors and socialworkers.

Mr Partridge said: "There has been an inadequate support system before now, with some hospitals providing follow-up, some burns units providing support, and some hospitals sending health professionals into schools to teach about disfigurement - but no national service.

"There is a clinical psychological service for facially disfigured people but most are only picked up when things get serious. Yet many others have problems about being seen in public."

Mr Partridge instances his own experience of waiting at a bus stop and being approached by a middle-aged woman. As she became aware of his appearance, he said, she froze for an instant and began staring intently, walking round him to inspect his face from different angles. When the bus arrived, Mr Partridge stood back, said `After you' and allowed the woman to board first.

"She looked absolutely staggered that I had anything intelligent between my ears at all, as she obviously expected me to be sub-normal," he said, adding that people with facial disfigurement met with similar reactions every day, ranging from fear to disdain.

What they needed was "support, someone to listen to them, advice and information''.

Mr Partridge is keen to stress that the unit will cater for all kinds of disfigurement. There are many kinds of facial disfigurement, some of which are congenital, such as vitiligo, Bell's palsy and haematoma, and others, such as severe acne, which can affect a person's whole life."