I had huge boobs as a teenager and it wasn’t easy. My back and shoulders hurt constantly, and I’d been teased and whispered about them all throughout high school. There was no shirt, blouse, bra, dress, bathing suit, sweater, sweatshirt, gym uniform, apron or smock that fit me properly. I’d worn a middle-aged woman’s shimmery sheath to prom. It sucked. So I decided to have breast reduction surgery.
I was a healthy 19-year-old under the care of a world-renowned plastic surgeon. He was also the Head of General Surgery at a fancy, well-funded hospital in an upscale Chicago suburb. He wasn’t very friendly or warm, but my mom and I figured he didn’t have to be a hit at cocktail parties, he just had to be able to perform successful surgeries. We’d done our research and he came highly recommended, so after meeting several surgeons, we settled on him. Health insurance was going to cover the entire procedure.
Heading into surgery, I was cautiously optimistic, but I also felt a little vulnerable and embarrassed. It was a scary feeling to be placing such a sensitive part of your body under someone else’s control.
“Everyone’s different,” the doctor told me, “and this is major surgery. But there’s no reason to assume you won’t have a positive outcome. You’re a good candidate,” he said. This was before Google, but I Asked Jeeves about breast reductions for weeks and weeks before the big day. In terms of bra size, I’d be going from a G/H cup (!!!) to a D cup. It seemed too good to be true.
The surgery itself lasted four hours. They removed eight pounds of breast tissue. When I woke up, both pieces of information shocked me and I felt embarrassed all over again. Eight pounds. I was tightly bandaged and in searing pain, but my chest was dramatically smaller.
The initial recuperation process was tough. I stayed at my mom’s house while I recovered. There were dressings and bandages to change daily, I was extremely uncomfortable even when I took the maximum pain medication allowed, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping. But I slowly began to heal.
At the time, I was a college student on summer vacation from New York University. About six weeks after surgery, I got approval from the doctor to fly back to the East Coast. The fall semester would start soon, and he didn’t need to see me again until Christmas break. So I flew to New York.
(What I’m about to describe isn’t for the squeamish, so read ahead at your own risk.)
A couple weeks later, I noticed an acute pain I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t have full mobility of my upper body yet (and wouldn’t for a few more months), but something felt wrong, so I contorted myself into position in front of a mirror. I gasped when I saw a bright red sore the size of a quarter along my incision. It was deep and painful, and I immediately called my doctor.
He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. “Keep an eye on it,” he said.
“It hurts,” I said.
“Go see somebody if it gets worse.” He sounded distracted. These weren’t very reassuring words, but, again, his bedside manner was subpar, so I trusted him and waited a few more days.
Soon, six or seven more wounds sprung open along different places on my incision, seemingly overnight. It was terrifying and I felt wildly out of control of my own body, like the healing process was going in reverse. I kept my Chicago doctor updated, and made an appointment with a doctor in New York. I was tearful and uncertain when I walked into his office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“I’m not sure,” he said flatly. “Seems it’s not healing properly.”
“Right...” I said.
We stared at each other. Did he think I was overreacting?
“WHY?!” I blurted.
“Don’t know,” he said. “All we can do is treat the wound sites and hope for the best.”
I was quickly losing faith in the medical profession.
Before I left his office he noticed that some of my sutures, which were supposed to have dissolved weeks ago, were still intact and were actually pushing their way out of my tissue through the open wounds. It was like a horror movie. Tears streamed down my face as he carefully trimmed the exposed sutures and redressed my scars. He told me that if more stitches came out, I could trim them myself. I told him I’d rather hold my breath for the rest of time than cut a foreign object out of my own body.
I left his office feeling scared and defeated. How had this happened to me? My surgeon was one of the most reputable doctors we could find, and I’d followed his instructions to the letter, but instead of walking away with smaller, perkier boobs, I was having an inexplicable, painful complication. The strange wounds eventually closed up weeks later, but I couldn’t wear a normal bra or certain kinds of shirts for a long time.
I knew recovery would be a difficult, but no one mentioned this kind of uncharted territory. And once everything finally healed, my boobs didn’t look normal at all. My scarring was so substantial and intense, I looked I’d been put back together using modeling clay. Every time I looked in the mirror, I was ashamed that this happened.
Two years later, I went back to the Chicago doctor for one of my regularly scheduled check-ups. It was then that he recommended I have a second surgery to alleviate the terrible scarring from the first. Technically it would be considered a re-reduction, even though he wouldn’t be removing more breast tissue, just scar tissue. He was confident it would help reduce my scars, so I decided to go ahead with it. I wish I hadn’t.
I vividly remember saying to him a couple weeks before my surgery, “I just have to ask, are you planning to do anything differently this time around so I don’t end up with those huge wounds again?” He didn’t really give me a straight answer, just kind of mumbled something affirmative about seeing what he could do. I should have walked out of the office right then, but I allowed his good reputation to overrule my gut instinct.
The second surgery took another three hours, and another pound of breast tissue had been removed when I woke up. In the weeks that followed, I experienced the same searing pain, the same sleepless nights, the same discomfort as the first time. I was under the impression that this surgery wouldn’t be as intense as the first one, but it was just as bad, and I was in a lot of pain.
Still, I was healing normally. I stayed at my mom’s house even longer this time to avoid any additional risk from travel. I was hopeful that my boob job nightmare was almost over.
And then, almost overnight, the exact same complication happened again. A dozen ugly sores opened up along my incisions, some bearing undissolved sutures, all extremely painful. I was devastated. Obviously my body was having trouble with the trauma it was undergoing, but it was frustrating that no medical professional could explain why.
What was worse was that I’d blindly trusted my doctor when he told me he could fix the first botched surgery with a second. I assumed he’d done his research on my case and was doing everything possible to help me. But it was my body we were gambling with, not his. I felt ashamed that I’d let him perform another operation on me.
When I showed him my wounds at my next check-up, he didn't know what to say. I mustered up all my strength and said through my tears, “I need to ask you something. Did you do anything differently than the first time?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
I spoke more slowly now. “Did you take any active precautions to ensure I wouldn’t have this problem again? Did you go in with a different plan?” I asked, my voice shaking. I thought of all the different patients he saw on a daily basis, all the people who put their well-being in his hands. I realized I was probably just a number to him -- a random name on a clipboard. “Did you do anything differently?” I repeated, like he was a child.
I was dumbfounded when he quietly admitted the truth to me. “No.”
“These wounds,” I said, “are exactly what happened before. Do you realize that? I’m having the exact same complication! What’s going on?”
And then he had the audacity to say, “Actually, I don’t think this is what happened last time. Are you sure you’re not exaggerating?”
Exaggerating? Exaggerating? For what reason, exactly, would I be exaggerating? For attention? I was humiliated by how quickly he dismissed me. I wanted to punch him.
My mom was waiting for me in the lobby. When I walked out of the exam room I must have looked like I’d seen a ghost. She could tell I hadn’t gotten any answers. The doctor was standing at the reception desk signing a form when she flew out of her chair. “What did you do to my daughter!?” she shrieked. It was straight out of a Lifetime movie.
Dumbstruck, he muttered and mumbled some half-response that I can’t recall, and I don’t remember much after that except that we walked out of his office in an angry haze. In fact, we never went back to that doctor again. We treated the new wounds the same way I’d treated them the first time, and my chest healed to look exactly as it had before the additional surgery.
Eventually, I learned to accept my botched boobs and move on. I’ll never know what caused my situation. My body may have a more difficult time healing than others. Another doctor suggested maybe my surgeon didn’t bury the stitches deeply enough. Honestly, it could have been caused by a number of things. I’m not a doctor, and I’ll probably never have a definitive answer.
A few years later at the urging of some close friends, I got in touch with a lawyer to find out if I had any recourse. I learned that the statute of limitations had expired. I also learned that plastic surgery cases can be very difficult to win, because no matter why a patient has a procedure, plastic surgery is considered elective -- it’s a calculated risk. Whenever someone chooses to undergo elective surgery, it’s important to remember that nothing in life is perfect, mistakes can happen, results can be disappointing, and surgery is not a casual decision.
Today, I still have two breasts, they’re smaller than they were, and I survived the whole ordeal, but not without a great deal of physical and emotional pain. I learned to set my vanity aside, to accept my imperfect boobs, and to be grateful for my strength and my health. I also learned that you are your own best advocate in any medical situation. After all, doctors are human beings too, and we all make mistakes.