She Helps Give the Disfigured Back Their Self-Esteem

Times Staff Writer

Barbara Kammerer was working to give back to Doris Kunz what she lost in a flaming house seven years ago.

First, Kammerer applied skin-tone foundation to smooth the dark and light areas of Kunz’s face, the marks of third-degree burns and numerous skin grafts. Kammerer turned the reconstructed lips full and red. Then came the eyebrows--not solid lines but vertical dashes that looked more like strands of hair.

“When people can restore features that most of society has, then it’s much easier to enter society and not have people staring,” Kammerer said.

It is a simple concept most “normies” don’t think much about, but it’s one Kammerer lives with every day.


Kammerer, 44, is a cross between Estee Lauder and Dr. Joyce Brothers. She teaches the use of cosmetics, clothing, color and communication skills to help normalize the lives of people who have been disfigured by burns, automobile crashes or birth defects.

She will direct the Corrective Cosmetics and Total Image Center when it opens in a few weeks at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey. For now, Kammerer practices her trade wherever there is space at the hospital. A part-time employee of the hospital, she began her “total image” program in August and has about 20 clients, she said.

Survived Fiery Crash

The former schoolteacher from Huntington Beach has a poignant qualification: She survived a fiery car crash in 1977 that left her severely burned and in need of extensive reconstructive surgery.


“People get real limited and stopped by their fears and won’t risk going out, risk going on to school or risk being in a relationship,” she said. “They do have things to contribute in our world.”

Kammerer bases her work on the idea that appearance and self-esteem feed off one another and that both have a direct bearing on a person’s ability to succeed and be a productive member of society.

She developed her techniques through personal experience, courses and seminars. Kammerer designed her own re-entry program when she returned to teach school after her burn injury. Part of that was the decision to thoroughly explain her injury to students.

“I found that by being up front with the kids, they were very accepting,” she said.


Kammerer left teaching and for six years has worked as a counselor with various Southern California hospitals, helping burn survivors re-enter school and cope with disfigurement.

It is not known how many people suffer disfiguring facial injuries each year, but doctors nationwide performed reconstructive head and neck surgery on 26,300 people in 1986, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons in Chicago.

Both Kammerer and Kunz underwent operation after operation to reconstruct their noses and other facial features. About 20 operations have restored Kammerer’s features. After more than two dozen operations, the 26-year-old Kunz is taking a break from reconstructive surgery.

But even after the pain of injury and surgery has faded, a sometimes cruel but mostly ignorant and curious world awaits.


“Kids often think because our skin is different we’re wearing masks,” Kammerer said.

“They say I have bubble gum on my face,” said Kunz, who married last April and lives in Burbank.

Kammerer uses corrective cosmetics to restore features and create an illusion of symmetry. For example, Kammerer’s eyebrows will never grow back, so she pencils them in as realistically as possible. "(Eyebrows) show whether we’re sad or happy,” she said.

Much of Kammerer’s advice on clothing and color is universal, but there are tips especially for people with facial disfigurements. For example, Kammerer advises clients to wear a bow or collar that frames the face instead of sporting a plain neckline that makes a scarred visage the center of attention.


Equally important is how a person is presented to others, she said.

Kammerer lost the fingers of her right hand, but she extends it confidently to a new acquaintance. Corrective surgery has restored Kammerer’s ability to grasp objects with the hand. She keeps her head high and smiles.

“If someone who has a disability or disfigurement feels comfortable with themselves, the other person is going to relax as well,” she said.

Others have taught various elements of the total image strategy, but Kammerer says she offers the only complete package in the state.


While Kammerer is an optimist, she also is a realist. She knows that makeup and clothing cannot fully replace what was taken by fire or a crashing blow.

“That’s part of the healing, people realizing they’re never going to be the same but realizing there’s a lot they can do,” she said. “If people start saying they are deserving, worthwhile, loving, intelligent and capable, that’s what they’re going to be.”