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Caption: Dr. Sandra Brown examines what remains of the keloid on 20-year-old Michael Powell's neck. Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News

Date: 12/25/1997

Publication: The Detroit News


Sequence: DTN12250002
Page: 1
Book: F
Edition: Final
Section: Accent
Copyright: Copyright 1997 The Detroit News, Inc

Source: Tracy L. Pipp Detroit News Health Writer

Doctor gives the gift of hope: Southfield doctor performs miracles for desperate patients

Tucked into a second-floor corner of a nondescript professional building, the small office does not look like a place where miracles occur.

Inside, Dr. Sandra Brown moves smoothly from one exam room to the next, greeting patients, using practiced fingers to evaluate, flashing a reassuring smile. She is tall and trim, her former athlete's body neatly concealed beneath a knit suit and a white lab coat. Her braids are tied back, revealing a flawless complexion and her wide, understanding smile.All she lacks, her patients believe, are a halo and wings.

Brown's business card reads "Hair and Skin Rejuvenation," which sounds simplistic if you aren't aware of precisely what she is able to repair and rejuvenate in her little rooms in Southfield.

Brown specializes in the treatment of severe acne, burns, scars and especially keloids, a type of scarring that is particularly prevalent in black skin.

Though they usually arise from skin irritation or injury, keloids are not mere scars. Despite treatment -- or sometimes because of it -- pockets of scar tissue can grow to five or 10 times their original size, sometimes resembling new appendages more than scars. On some patients, keloids hang down below the chin or off the body by 6 inches or more.

"When I was in medical school, I saw so many cases in which the original keloid is small, but irritation and treatments like injections and excisement and radiation made them grow back larger than before," Brown says. "I saw people in severe pain. Agony. I realized that this problem was incapacitating patients and driving them to seclusion and even suicide."

The 47-year-old medical doctor says her patients are often so embarrassed by their appearance that they refuse to leave their homes. The keloids may bleed or itch. Sometimes, even water or cotton clothing touching the area causes excruciating pain.

Neither white nor black doctors, she says, know enough about treatment. After traditional treatments -- often involving laser or surgical removal -- patients are told there is nothing left to try and are left with a large scar that continues to grow.

Brown does not show the revulsion that so many of her patients are used to from passers-by and doctors alike. She is, however, proud to show before-and-after photos of patients whose keloids she has healed through a technique she developed herself (she holds undergraduate degrees in chemistry and biology): the applications of acid compounds to the skin. Her technique -- not taught in medical schools or, she believes, used by other physicians -- has successfully shrunk or dissolved keloidsfrom thousands of patients.

"My scars are finally flattening out, after 42 years," says patient Betty Childress, 50. The Detroit woman had keloids that were the result of scars from a case of chicken pox. Doctors tried twice to surgically remove her original scar, which was only 1 inch long. Both times it grew back, and she underwent radiation treatments that "triggered something in my body that made keloids start to grow in other areas."

"It's amazing how many doctors are not familiar with keloids," Childress says softly, recalling the myriad treatments she has undergone over the years.

Childress didn't have much hope when she made the appointment with Brown a year ago. "You get to the point where you don't want to see another white coat, because you feel like a specimen, not a person," she says. "But Dr. Brown has done her homework. Not only can she treat your physical self, but she understands the trauma you go through."

The gentle healing of the spirit is of utmost importance, Brown says.

"I get very emotional with them. I cry with them," Brown says. She is in the process of organizing a support group for patients with keloids. "These people are tired of being stared at and being offered hope, then being told hope is a myth."

She feels so strongly about her work that she treats patients regardless of their ability to pay, sometimes working on her day off.

"There are things more important than money. You couldn't pay me enough money to give me the feeling I have when I see a person bloom in front of me."

The gentle bedside manner her patients experience is in direct contrast to her feelings on the subject. In the privacy of her office, out of earshot of patients, her emotions bubble up:

"People commit suicide because of this, and I hold in my hand the power to heal them," she says. "And I am supposed to sit home with my family when there are people out there who cannot bathe? Who cannot dress? Who do not leave their homes for years at a time because they are horrified by how they look? Who would take their own lives?"

She pauses and leans forward across her desk, eyes glittering. "I cannot handle that."

So she does not refuse a patient who cannot pay, because "you don't know what you're unfolding."

Patient Michael Powell is 20 but still looks 5, the age he was when he went into cardiac arrest during surgery to remove an ever-growing keloid. He was in a coma for two weeks; when he awoke, the little boy who had happily played with his twin sister was gone, says his mother, Selena Powell. Since that day, Powell has shuttled her now-wheelchair-bound and severely handicapped son to clinics and doctors for rehabilitation as well as the treatment of his keloid. Eventually, she says, "no doctorswould touch him. They said they could make him worse, not better."

But Michael has been seeing Brown, and though it is hard for his mother to transport him to his appointments, she is pleased with his progress. "He's much more comfortable and peaceful. If he could come on schedule, his keloid would be gone."

Brown's drive and determination were handed down to her from her parents, both of whom attained advanced college degrees while raising two young daughters.

"By the time I was in college," she says with a chuckle, "all four of us were going to school at the same time." The family was close-knit and supportive: "My parents didn't argue. They didn't drink. We went to church. My parents made us volunteer, telling us that we had what we needed."

She can't explain, exactly, how she came up with the combination of chemicals that she now uses on a daily basis.

"It was almost like a dream, the way it came to me," she says. "I know that sounds odd, crazy even, but that's the truth. I just thought of it and I knew it would work."

"She's simply one of the best in her field," says Dr. Emily Smith, a former Ford Hospital internal medicine specialist who now is a consultant for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan. After Brown treated Smith for a dermatological problem several years ago, Smith has happily referred hundreds of patients.

"I really like that she's doing some nontraditional things, because that's how new innovative treatments come to be," Smith says. "No other doctor I know has the success rate for keloids and the depth of commitment to her patients that Sandra has."

And Brown's patients feel that commitment. "Blessed" is the word that patients use over and over again to describe how they feel to have found compassion and skill.

"Dr. Brown takes a true interest in her patients, physically and emotionally," says Dorothy Dudley of Ferndale, a 61-year-old who has survived not only her own depression due to keloids but the suicide of a friend who suffered from the same condition.

Once, when Dudley was in an exam room awaiting her annual Pap smear, the doctor called in the office secretary and whipped off the cover sheet, exposing a nearly-naked Dudley and all her keloids. "He told me I could scare somebody, and I guess he just wanted to try it," she remembers.

That kind of incident would not occur in Brown's office, Dudley says. "She is a true professional with compassion."

When patients come in for treatment and leave feeling better, Brown says, "that does more for me than anything."

In addition to treating keloids, Brown is awaiting FDA approval and a patent for another technique: regrowing hair.

Skeptical? Ask one of the 6,000 patients she has treated for hair regrowth. In the same way the therapy for keloid thinning came to Brown, she says, so did the formula for fighting baldness. "I wish I could say I slaved at a lab, tried all sorts of chemical combinations and now finally it works," she says with a laugh. "But that's not how it happened."

She already holds a patent for the process in New Zealand and Australia and her lawyers expect the U.S. patent and FDA approval to come through next year.

Brown says she has what she needs: a thriving medical practice, a husband and four children. A good life.

A gift.

"I have been given a gift," she says. "And you better do what's right with that gift, because a gift can be taken away just as easily as it is given."

A keloid guide

A keloid is an overproduction of scar tissue that usually occurs at the site of a prior skin injury. Keloids often appear on the face and neck, but can be found anywhere on the body. Often they start out small and grow rapidly; Dr. Sandra Brown has seen patients whose keloids are so large that they cannot rest their head back because the keloid cuts off their air supply.

Standard treatments for keloids include surgical removal (which often causes further growth and scarring) and X-ray therapy or cortisone injections. Brown uses her own method of treatment to treat keloids, which consists of topical applications of various strengths and combinations of acids.

To reach the offices of Dr. Sandra Brown, call (248) 557-1414.

Caption: Donna Terek / The Detroit News "People tell me I've given them inspiration," Delbert McCoy says. "I got a scrapbook to keep all the notes they've sent."