Our daughter Marlene was born with a bright red birthmark on her face. It covered her left cheek and ran up her nose, ending in a point on her forehead. When I first saw her, I was concerned but not panicked. She had scored well on standard newborn responsiveness tests, and the obstetrician told us not to worry. The mark, he said, would disappear in a few weeks.

Any calm feelings and happiness my husband and I shared were shattered the next morning by the neonatologist. He came into my room unexpectedly, matter-of-factly announcing that the birthmark, a port-wine stain, was symptomatic of an array of serious developmental problems. He said our daughter could be mentally retarded and suffer from glaucoma and seizures.

When I asked about the birthmark, he shook his head and said it could never be removed. Our best hope, he told me, was in finding a good makeup to cover it. As he left the room, his parting words were: "Treat her like a normal child."

After he was gone, I spent a long time looking at Marlene. She has big blue eyes, a perfectly oval-shaped face and an incredible way of tilting her head back and smacking her lips when she finishes nursing. My husband Rick came in as I was holding her; he had called in the middle of the doctor's visit and rushed to the hospital as fast as he could. The three of us sat close together, while Rick and I waited for our pediatrician to give us a second opionion.

Our pediatrician, L. Harrison Pillsbury, was more optimistic. He told us Marlene was one of the most alert babies in the nursery. Her eyes were clear. And not only that, he said he had heard of a new laser treatment for removing birthmarks. During the nine months of my pregnancy, I felt great. Any medical questions I had were easily answered by my obstetrician. Now, sitting across from our pediatrician, I expected he would have all answers.

But he told us from the start of our conversation that he had never had a patient with a birthmark like Marlene's, and he needed to consult with a specialist to be sure of her prognosis. I wasn't used to doctors admitting they weren't omniscient, but somehow his honesty made me feel more confidence in him.

Later that afternoon, Kenneth Rosenbaum, chief of genetics at Children's Hospital, examined Marlene. He sat down in my room, making notes on a pad of paper. The three words that were key were Sturge Weber syndrome, a condition that involves the vascular and central nervous system. The neonatologist had been correct in pointing out the connection between port-wine stains and developmental problems. However, he failed to tell us that while three out of 1,000 children are born with port-wine stains, only 8 percent of them suffer from the debilitating effects of Sturge Weber. Rosenbaum doubted that Marlene fell into that category.

Of course, when dealing with the fear of mental retardation, glaucoma and seizures, cosmetic problems seem a lot less serious. I felt guilty worrying about her appearance while her physical development was at stake. But I was worried. We weren't talking about a potential nose job or crooked teeth. If there were no treatment available, hers was a problem that would exist every time she looked in the mirror. It would come to define her, and psychologically, I didn't know how I would handle it.

If Marlene had been born five years ago, our outlook might have been different. The technology for removing bithmarks was still relatively primitive: doctors tried skin grafts, tattoos, radium implants and argon lasers. All were risky. Argon laser therapy was considered the best of the lot, but it was not recommended because it often left unsightly scars on children.

Fortunately, a better technology has been developed. Using a flashlamp-pulsed tunable dye laser, doctors are able to remove birthmarks without damaging the underlying skin. The pioneer in the field is Oon Tian Tan, a dermatologist affiliated with Boston City Hospital.

Our doctors had read about Tan's laser treatments in a study she published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, reporting success with removing port-wine stains on 35 children between the ages of three months and 14 years. The beauty of her treatment, our doctors explained, was that there was very little risk of scarring as long as the skin was protected from injury in the weeks following treatment.

Before Marlene was a week old, I called Tan's office. The doctor was born in Malaysia and brought up and educated in England, and we had heard that she is in great demand, with patients coming from as far away as Korea. I expected to wait a long time for our first appointment, but we were scheduled for a Friday afternoon a month later.

I also had thought that the treatment would be very expensive, since it was such a new technology. But it cost less than $200 a visit and was covered by insurance. We had heard that there were doctors in the area using the tunable dye laser to treat birthmarks, but we felt it was better to go with Tan. She had a reputation for being a perfectionist at matching skin tones.

We met with Tan for about an hour in her office. She told us that Marlene would need six to eight treatments, which could be done every two months. We had heard that the laser feels like a hot rubber band snapping against your skin, but Tan stressed that any physical pain Marlene felt was preferable to the psychological damage she would suffer if she didn't have the treatment.

I readily agreed. Already we were explaining the mark to strangers who peered into her carriage. At least there was a chance that by the time Marlene was old enough to talk, there would be no trace of the discoloration on her face. Tan had treated 1,000 people, most of whom had spent their lives trying to hide their disfigurements.

Tan said all of the birthmark could be removed, and that it was best to have the treatment done as early as possible. Blood vessels in a port-wine stain "actually increase in size with increasing age, and the skin itself is that much thinner {now} so the treatments should be easier," she said.

In the treatment room, we placed Marlene on her back on an operating table; Rick and I stood on either side holding her hands. We wore goggles to protect us from the light, and mine filled up quickly with tears. Marlene looked so vulnerable and scared.

The doctor worked fast. She brought the laser, a little larger than a ballpoint pen, close to the surface of Marlene's skin and flashed it. We heard a crackle and there was the smell of Marlene's sideburns burning.

In explaining how the treatment worked, Tan had said to imagine a red balloon inside a white balloon. The laser passes through the white balloon, leaving it intact, while zapping out the red balloon. The treatment took about 15 minutes. When it was over, bright red dots covered the left side of Marlene's face. Tan cut out a gauze mask and taped it over the dots, leaving a hole for Marlene's eye.

For the next nine days, we kept Marlene's face covered, changing the dressing once in the morning and once at night. She hated the bandage, crying a lot, and appearing to be angry at us.

Over the next two months, the red dots on her cheek faded to white, but her skin looked mottled, as though she had slept on an uneven surface. The redness on her nose didn't fade as well, and I was worried, but Tan later told us that the skin there will take longer to treat.

Marlene is an extroverted five-month-old now, and few people mention the birthmark. Sometimes they ask if she has a rash, and we often say she does to avoid long explanations. Rick and I feel confident that Marlene is right on target developmentally, and our doctors have pretty much ruled out any neurological problems. We've taken her to Boston for two treatments, and the birthmark has faded considerably, although it is going to take several more trips before it is gone altogether.

Initially, it was hard for me to photograph my daughter. I wondered how she would feel later on in life seeing pictures of herself as a baby. But one day I just picked up the camera and started shooting. I needed to capture her big alert eyes and her smile on film.