Spa Giving: Spa for Trauma Survivors

What happens when a promising young beauty pro devotes her career to trauma survivors?

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Erica Torresso has always adored all things beauty-related. After earning her cosmetology degree in 2006, Torresso planned to get some professional experience under her belt, obtain her esthetics license and eventually open her own fashionable spa/salon. She never imagined that in achieving this very dream of becoming a beauty proprietor, she would also spend countless hours in hospital trauma centers, reacquainting burn victims and other survivors of facial disfigurement with their own sense of worth, through specialized beauty and counseling services.

Torresso’s connection with her rarified clientele was sparked in 2006. At the time, she was apprenticing at the Marilyn Miglin Institute on downtown Chicago’s tony Oak Street—“I was blessed to land such an esteemed job right after school,” she reflects. Marilyn Miglin, the salon’s owner and a well-known beauty authority, author and fragrance creator, was also a founding member of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) advisory board for the Craniofacial Center, a renowned trauma unit. Miglin had made a monthly habit of visiting the center to provide patients with beauty services and uplifting motivation. One day, her assistant couldn’t make the cross-city trip, so Torresso was summoned to accompany her boss. “I was really surprised when she asked me to go—I was so new,” she says.

That visit changed the course of Torresso’s professional destiny. “I saw people missing ears and eyes, suffering from terrible burns and prosthetic limbs, and Marilyn would put makeup on them, tell them how awesome and beautiful they were, and make them feel great,” Torresso says. “I was intimidated by the sensitivity of the atmosphere, but also humbled, and knew right away that I didn’t want to just work in the high-end atmosphere anymore; I wanted to keep going back to the burn unit to work with trauma survivors.”

So Torresso asked Miglin if she could continue to tag along on visits. About a year later, when Miglin’s schedule became prohibitively busy, Torresso set up a meeting with the doctors manning UIC’s Craniofacial Center and convinced them that she was ready to take over for Miglin. As the Center’s current cosmetology/image consultant, Torresso has channeled her beauty acumen and creative energies into formulating new ways to motivate and beautify victims of all manner of trauma and disfigurement.

“I continued to study under great people, got my esthetics license and starting telling everyone I wanted to work exclusively with trauma survivors,” Torresso says. “I had a lot of people tell me, ‘That’s a nice idea but you won’t be able to make a living doing just that.’ I know a lot of people considered me really naïve.”

Torresso, however, knew that while she still loved the beauty industry, her heart was in helping this very special population. So, she recently packed up her salon station and went fully forward with her dream by launching her own mobile operation, funded largely by hospital grants and dedicated to treating “anyone from burn victims to disease survivors to victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking.” Her days consist of traveling to various Chicago hospitals, and meeting with doctors and trauma survivors to devise treatment plans and dispense encouragement. (Torresso considers “making over” one’s shattered self-esteem a crucial component of her job description.)

DAYSPA checked in with Torresso to learn more about her singular operation, and find out exactly how one applies a background in beauty to such challenging, heart-wrenching work.

DAYSPA: Is there a special method for making over trauma victims?

Torresso: No, there weren’t any taught when I was in school. This may sound funny, but I just look at a person, and wait for a vision to show me how to get from point A to point B. I’ve studied under a lot of amazing people, and I’m constantly staying up on new makeup and esthetics techniques—I’ll look up ideas online, and I read a lot of industry magazines. With a given patient, I usually end up blending several different techniques, though I do tend to stick to brands formulated for sensitive skin. Everything I’ve ever learned in the industry has helped to prepare me for this work.

Do you work with patients before they’ve undergone reconstructive surgery, or after?

It really depends on each situation; everything is very customized. I spend a lot of time with patients, and also work closely with their doctors to make sure I’m not overlooking anything, and that none of my services will further harm or damage their skin. I might do a makeover prior to a surgery so patients can get an idea of what we’re going for. If people aren’t comfortable with makeup, we’ll focus on their hair or wardrobe.

How exactly do you handle the emotional component of your work?

I’ve suffered from domestic abuse and other trauma that has left me feeling helpless, but I’ve learned how to heal those emotional barriers and scars to become happy and successful. I pour into others what I needed in my past. I know from experience that healing is perception—makeovers are not band-aids; there has to be an emotional component. I know victims who stop washing their faces because they don’t feel pretty enough to look in the mirror to do it. Through this work, people come to see their inner selves as this new, improved person, and also believe it, and know that’s who they really are. The mind has to match what the eye is seeing.

How do you help traumatized victims harness this kind of confidence?

I’ve developed a lot of emotional coaching techniques to form my own self-esteem workshops. Everybody who has endured trauma needs somebody to tell them, ‘This is not the end; this does not define who you are or what you do.’ There’s always a lot of room for moving forward, but it’s a choice that you have to make. You have to seek positive influences and be aware that in every moment, you’re either influencing other people or being influenced.

How do you spread word about your services?

I’m not afraid to approach hospital administrators and talk to them about the importance of this work. Not only does it benefit patients, but it creates positive buzz for the hospital; it’s a growing field. I also have the most amazing patients. For instance, Jared Estes, the very first trauma victim I ever worked with, had more than 13 reconstructive surgeries following a drunk-driving accident that killed his wife—but he has such a wonderful attitude that you’d never know how he has suffered. He does speaking engagements about drunk-driving and recovery, and has done wonders to help spread the word about my services.

What’s on the horizon for you and your company?

I hope to travel out of the state and country to work with more trauma survivors, and am looking to partner with certain non-profits to make mission trips to help people in disaster areas. I’m also fighting to get my services covered by patients’ insurance, and I’m in the editing phases of a memoir titled Pain in My Purpose. It’s a tell-all about my own journey bouncing back from debilitating trauma. I hope to release it in 2014. It’s pretty intense, but I think it will provide hope to a lot of people, in and out of trauma units.