Recently I read about a new development in breast augmentation surgery: women getting implants while awake. This latest advance in medical science is supposed to save money and cut down on risks associated with general anesthesia. Sounds like a great idea, except that it’s completely insane.
How do I know? Because I had my breast implants removed while I was awake several years ago, and guess what? That borderline barbaric stuff ain’t pretty.
Before I launch into the gory details of my misadventures in plastic surgery, a bit of backstory. My reason for getting implants was the worst possible reason anyone can have: my boyfriend at the time “suggested” it.
I was recently divorced and, after breastfeeding two kids, fairly insecure about my deflated former D-cups. My boobs were the only thing about my “post-baby body” that made me hate taking my clothes off, so when my boyfriend –- let’s call him “P” -– offered to pay for the procedure, I figured, “Oh, well, what have I got to lose?” (Famous last words/Dark foreshadowing/Ironic premonition.)
My surgeon came highly recommended, by both women I knew personally and all of the online testimonies I could find. Sure, his halitosis was so severe it damn near rendered any sort of anesthesia unnecessary and, sure, he was wearing the same Hawaiian shirt every time I saw him, but personal hygiene and/or fashion sense aren’t indicators of medical expertise, are they?
Plus, everything about his practice seemed legit: the swank office, the mountains of paperwork. That’s right, there’s a copious amount of paperwork involved when you make the (probably dubious) decision to get breast implants -- lots of paragraphs filled with lots of fine print describing the many ways in which the procedure you’re about to have might go horribly, terribly, wrong and lots of dotted lines to be signed so that in the event something does go horribly, terribly wrong, your surgeon won’t be held responsible.
I had twice the amount of forms to fill out as the average patient because I would in fact be undergoing two surgeries: a lift, or mastopexy, and an augmentation. Ordinarily, the doctor explained, he preferred to stagger the time between operations; most women required a month or two of healing after a breast lift before their bodies were strong enough to sustain the addition of implants. For some reason, I was different.
In my case, performing both surgeries at one time seemed like a viable option, according to my doctor. Something to do with my age and relative good health, the doctor said, and I chose to believe him, wanting to get the whole thing over with in one shot.
As it turned out, the doctor was wrong.
The first couple of months following my surgeries weren’t too much of a nightmare (not counting the initial shock of waking up with what I like to call “Frankenboobs,” which is really the only accurate way to describe the reassembled patchwork quilt quality of a pair of breasts following a mastopexy/augmentation).
Then one morning, I opened my eyes and one of my breasts -– the right one –- felt as hard as a rock. Capsular contracture. Definitely one of the possible complications mentioned in all that fine print, capsular contracture, in medical terms, is an abnormal response by the immune system to foreign materials in the human body.
In laymen’s terms, capsular contracture is what happens when your breast decides it wants nothing to do with that bag of silicone some quack in a Hawaiian shirt stuffed in there and freaks out.
I called my doctor’s office right away, only to be told that he was in the process of moving his practice from Connecticut, where I live, to Seattle. (Red flag? Yes.) He wouldn’t be back for about a week, said the receptionist, but the nurse could see me right away and attempt to “correct” the problem by performing a closed capsulotomy, which –- and I’m just going to go straight to laymen’s terms here -– basically involves a licensed medical professional vigorously kneading your breast like a mound of stubborn pizza dough.
This proposed solution sounded slightly alarming, I’ll admit, but with my judgment clouded by the annoyance of having what felt like a petrified grapefruit affixed to one side of my chest, I agreed. The nurse could do what she needed to do without putting me under, apparently, so at least I could drive myself home.
You might think that this is the part of the story where things get ugly, but it’s not –- not really. Don’t get me wrong; the closed capsulotomy was unpleasant, but not particularly gruesome. (Highlight of the experience? Hearing the nurse gasp, “Now that is one unhappy boob!” when I disrobed.)
It was also, unfortunately, largely ineffective. My breast softened up slightly at first, but within about two weeks time, something even worse was happening. It started with what I thought was a bruise along the underside of my right breast; at first, I thought maybe I was wearing the wrong sort of bra. But that purplish black “bruise” spread fast, and before long I was placing another near-panicked call (this time directly to the nurse’s cell phone). Wouldn’t you know it? My coast-switching surgeon was back in Seattle, and his offices were all packed up, but he’d be back for a couple of days the next week to see patients in a “temporary facility.”
“If you can just hang tight until Monday, that would be great,” said the nurse. “But call me anytime if things get worse.”
Later that day, things got worse. As in, my implant was suddenly poking out through a hole in the bottom of my boob.
I placed another call, this time in full-fledged panic.
“Oh, no! Oh, sweetie, that’s going to have to come right out.” The nurse sounded horrified over the phone, which did nothing to calm my nerves. “The doctor will see you at his temporary facility first thing in the morning.”
Wait, what? Wasn’t my doctor in Seattle? In retrospect, I should have started asking some pretty serious questions right then and there, but all I cared about at that point was getting the gaping hole in my body fixed. So I showed up bright and early the next day at the temporary facility, which turned out to be a perfectly normal (if low on medical supplies) cosmetologist’s office.
The doctor hovered over me, tufts of chest hair poking out from the open collar of his Hawaiian shirt.
“Oh, yeah, that has to come out,” he said, his mouth set in a slight grimace. (I tried not to breathe through my nose as he spoke.) He turned to the nurse.
“Can you run out to CVS for me? I need an X-Acto knife, a roll of gauze and a bottle of Suave conditioner.”
I swear to god, that’s a direct quote.
I didn’t ask why he needed the Suave (maybe he was multi-tasking, getting some items checked off his shopping list?). I had a sinking feeling the X-Acto knife would be used to slice through my flesh, and I was right. Luckily, the cosmetologist did have local anesthetic and syringes in stock. “So, this shouldn’t hurt a bit,” the doctor said as he swabbed my skin with disinfectant.
He kept talking as he cut me open, sort of the way somebody’s dad makes small talk as they carve the Thanksgiving turkey. “You know, I did my residency in Africa,” he told me, squinting under the bright light shining on my boob. “Patching up rebel soldiers. Thatched roof huts, dirt floors, the whole nine. So this,” he waved the X-Acto knife in the air casually, “is nothing.”
I have no idea if the doctor’s story was true, but it did make it easier for me to slip into a sort of deluded dream state in which I was an extra on an episode of M*A*S*H. (Yes, I know M*A*S*H wasn’t set in Africa, but I couldn’t afford to get picky with my coping mechanisms right then.)
Anyway, the first implant slipped out easily. That’s because my bruise wasn’t really a bruise at all, it was necrosis –- dead tissue. (As a reference point, think of how effortlessly a zombie’s limbs are ripped from his or her body.) Not much of a challenge for an X-Acto knife.
The second implant was a different story.
At first, the doctor wasn’t even going to remove it: “We’ll just wait a few months for this breast to heal, then we’ll fly you out to Seattle and put in a new implant!” Once I made it clear that I had no interest in walking around with one implant for the next few days, let alone the next few months, the doctor agreed to take it out -- but it wouldn’t be easy, he warned.
My left breast was healthy, no capsular contracture, real, live tissue. A huge challenge for an X-Acto knife, even a brand-new, perfectly sharp X-Acto knife. What my doctor really needed was an X-Acto saw –- but then, that’s essentially what the blade turned into in his hands. Thanks to the anesthesia, I didn’t feel any pain, per se, but “pain” is as good a word as any to describe the ridiculously unsettling discomfort of living through your own dissection.
I felt like a formaldehyde-soaked frog on a table in a high school biology classroom.
The biggest surprise of the day came when my surgeon announced that he would not be stitching up the large open gashes in the bottom of my now empty breasts.
“These need to heal from the inside out,” he said. That’s where the Suave conditioner came in.
As he reached into the CVS bag for a roll of gauze, the doctor told me about Suave’s “magical healing properties” (again, I swear to god I’m not making this up). “All you have to do is soak some gauze in Suave and stuff it into the empty cavities,” he said. “Over the next couple of weeks, the cavities will start to close up on their own. But you will need to change the dressing every day.”
“Will that hurt?” I asked?
“It shouldn’t be too painful,” said the doctor unconvincingly.
“I’ll get your prescription pad,” said the nurse, quickly. “She’s gonna need some Vicodin.”
You know something? I did need SOME Vicodin. I needed A LOT of Vicodin, in fact. Because, contrary to the doctor’s belief, ripping Suave-soaked gauze out of giant holes in your breasts hurts like a motherfucker.
I didn’t know how painful the next month would be when I left the cosmetologist’s office that day, though I’d already started bleeding through my bandages. By the time I got home, the entire front of my shirt was soaked in blood. I looked (and felt) like a gunshot victim.
It’s been about 7 years since my plastic surgery fiasco. You can only see the jagged X-Acto scars when I lift up my boobs, a sight the vast majority of people aren’t privy to, so it’s not really a big deal. But, without sounding overdramatic, not a day goes by that I don’t think about what a stunningly bad decision I made.
You’re probably wondering if I sued my stank-breathed Hawaiian shirt-loving doc –- the answer is no. Maybe I should have, but it wasn’t my money that paid for the surgery (shocker: “P” and I broke up shortly thereafter) and I just wanted to put the whole thing behind me as soon as possible. You might also be wondering if I’m now staunchly anti-plastic surgery –- the answer is yes. Plastic surgery is still SURGERY -– and surgery is inherently risky.
I would never again agree to go under the knife unless it was absolutely necessary, and I’m convinced more people would feel the same way if they had the, um, invaluable experience of being awake while cut open. I’m not judging anyone who feels differently, mind you. I’m just a little worried about them.