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Disfigured as a child, he helps those who also are scarred

From an automobile accident when he was 12, the focus of his Craig Aronchick's life became his face. He was scarred, disfigured. In 2005, he decided to fund a psychologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to help children like he was. He wants to help them out of their isolation.

Susan and Craig Aronchick at home. Craig Aronchick was badly scarred in a car accident at age 12. ( John Costello / Inquirer )
Susan and Craig Aronchick at home. Craig Aronchick was badly scarred in a car accident at age 12. ( John Costello / Inquirer )Read more

Craig Aronchick was 12, on his way to baseball practice. His sister, 17, was driving the family's 1963 Impala convertible.

She was inexperienced, and smoking. She flicked her cigarette out the window, and it flew back in, onto her lap. She looked down, trying to prevent herself from burning.

The car hit a telephone pole.

Aronchick, now 55, doesn't remember going through the windshield. All he remembers is lying on the street, thinking this must be a dream. He pinched himself, but didn't wake up.

He poked his finger into his cheek - through his cheek - and touched his molars. "My cheek was filleted," he said.

From that moment on, the focus of his life became his face. He was scarred, disfigured. Even today, as a Philadelphia physician, inventor and philanthropist helping scores of children suffering facial trauma, he will slide into an introduction with an attractive woman and turn his face to the right to show his good side, his left.

In 2005, Aronchick decided to fund a psychologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, starting with a $200,000 donation, to help children like he was. He wants to help them out of their isolation.

When Aronchick was a boy, he got little support beyond his family to deal with his emotional scars. He built a good life, but he is convinced that most children in his position do not.

"Not everybody can do it," he says. "Much more common that people can't do it. How many people do you see out there with a [disfigured] face? How many are at home that you don't see? I think there's a need."

Scarred and rejected

A few months after his accident, Aronchick was on a bridge over a stream near his home in North Jersey, and tried to kiss a pretty girl. "She took off running," he recalls. "She might have taken off running anyway - we were in seventh grade. But I was devastated and immediately thought of my face."

Aronchick, after the accident, channeled his energies into sports and schoolwork, areas where he could succeed. He had three plastic-surgery procedures, but scars remained, and his cheek drooped from nerve damage.

He was traumatized at the thought of meeting women.

At Muhlenberg College his freshman year, he was at a bar next to a beautiful woman. He began to panic that she would turn and see his disfigured face.

He picked up a pitcher of beer off the bar, and dumped it over his head. Everyone around him laughed - this is college freshman behavior - and the bartender ordered him out of the bar, giving him an excuse for a quick exit.

Aronchick grew a thick beard in college. He was tall, dark, with long hair.

Susan Hermany, who would become his wife, was a year behind him. She came from Allentown, a cheerleader, in the popular crowd. She was attracted by his dark nature, his intensity.

"He was mysterious, and somebody I wouldn't normally seek out," she says. What she noticed most was that he looked exactly like Cat Stevens.

One day, in the cafeteria line, she came up behind him, on his scarred side. He didn't see her coming, and didn't have time to turn his face.

Her first words: "You look like a movie star."

This shocked him - and set him free.

"I felt totally like, God, this beautiful girl said that to me."

Their first date was to a really dark bar, where she could barely see him. They've been together ever since.

It wasn't until she was pregnant with their fourth child that he had a breakdown and she learned about his hang-up over his face.

"I never, ever saw the things he felt inside," she says. "I noticed this droop in his lip, but I thought it was a sexy look."

Early in their relationship, she said, he made up an extraordinary lie about his face. He said that he had been playing poker in an alley in the city and won a big pot, and that some guy had pulled out a knife and cut him.

"It made it sort of better than to be a victim," he says. "She didn't know the whole world I had built for myself."

Aronchick went to Temple Medical School, and then a residency at the University of Pennsylvania. In his fellowship years, he was doing research on brain function in cats. A researcher in his lab would cut open cat brains, slice them in two.

Aronchick, then 29, started having this vision. As he describes it: "A visual picture of my daughter's head being slashed by a samurai sword. I adored her. And it was me doing it."

This wasn't a hallucination. It was just a picture that kept coming into his mind's eye - a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"And he was hiding this from me," says his wife.

She noticed he wasn't sleeping, that he'd wake up in cold sweats. Finally he confided in her, and she got him help.

With counseling, the visions stopped. It was cathartic, releasing "what I was binding up all these years," he says.

At 35, he shaved his beard.

"I said to myself, 'Oh, well, I want to reveal myself now. It needs to be done. Needs to complete the cycle of me coming out. Facing my face, and facing my fear.' "

"It was the first time I ever saw his scars," his wife says, "the first time I saw the nakedness of his face. I liked it. I said, 'Don't grow it back.' "

His kids barely noticed. "Oh, hey, Dad. You shaved."

A vow to help others

In 1992, Aronchick, a gastroenterologist in private practice in Center City, invented a pill named Osmoprep to empty the colon in preparation for a colonoscopy. It made him lots of money.

As he went through the federal approval process - a harrowing gauntlet, expensive and tedious - he made a vow: He would give back to children with facial trauma.

In 2005, with his donation, Children's Hospital hired a psychologist in the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Since then, Canice Crerand has worked with 300 children who have congenital facial deformities or suffered trauma like Aronchick. She helps them express emotions and develop strategies to deal with people who stare, tease, or can't look at them.

"Take the lead in introducing yourself, smiling or using humor to break the ice," she suggests. "Help put the other person at ease. This puts a lot of onus on the person with disfigurement, but enhances their control of the situation. . . . A lot of times a person with a disfigurement feels out of control because they can't control others' responses."

Scott Bartlett, chairman of plastic surgery, says he "can't emphasize enough how valuable a service" Crerand's work and Aronchick's funding are. Psychological help for these children and their families is "frequently not covered by insurance or other means, and many of these patients couldn't afford to see a private psychologist."

Aronchick wants to raise $2 million over five years to further Crerand's research, reach more patients, hold workshops for children and families dealing with facial deformities, and build a Web site that families and pediatricians nationwide can use.

Aronchick hopes to speak at group meetings. "My biggest message is they have to face their fears, face what gives them fear, and maybe that's facing people," he says.

"Help them realize," he adds, "that they are more than just their face."