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First Person

Tales From Under the Knife

A reluctant first trip to the plastic surgeon brings her face to face with an eyelid-opening world.

January 14, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You know," said the man who was just about to cut into my face, "the older I get, the more I value writers."

I took courage from his words, and I felt something similar toward him--because the older I get, the more I value cosmetic surgeons.

For many Angelenos, the first trip to the plastic surgeon's office is simply a rite of passage, like that first martini at the Sky Bar or the first time contesting a prenup. For a woman who has had exactly one manicure in her lifetime, who has never had her legs waxed, who has a hard time remembering to put on lipstick, it was an excursion into a whole other world.

Just getting to the first appointment was fraught with misadventure. The doctor who was recommended to me has an office on Spaulding, and here's how Eastside-located I am: I thought it was Spaulding Avenue near Midway Hospital, which made sense to me (doctor=medical procedure=hospital). I spent 20 minutes searching for an address that did not exist before realizing that it was Spaulding Place, which lies just a bit west of Barneys in Beverly Hills, which apparently makes sense to the rest of the world (doctor=improved appearance =high-end shopping).

Driving down Wilshire Boulevard I realized I had no business going to a cosmetic surgeon. Yes, I have had a facial scar that has plagued me with low-grade infections for 12 years now, but I'm Irish Catholic--we're supposed to grit our teeth and offer our suffering up to the poor souls in Purgatory, not high-tail it to some medical Sodom and Gomorrah where faces are peeled, breasts inflated and botulism is considered a panacea. But by the time I had decided to turn around, I was there already, and when I found out the doctor validated parking, well, I took it as a sign from God.

The examining room was small and dull, although a sheaf of pamphlets promised many wonderful things regarding my breasts, hips and tummy in such matter-of-fact language that I could see how easy it would be, if you had the money, to try to tuck and clip your way to physical perfection. Me, I just wanted this darn scar to stop getting infected and the doctor said it would be simple enough--outpatient, local anesthesia only, take about an hour.

According to the American Board of Plastic Surgeons, more than 220,000 Americans had scar revisions last year, making it an even more popular procedure than breast augmentation (212,500), but nowhere near as prevalent as liposuction (354,015), eyelid surgery (327,514) and nose jobs (389,155). There are no local statistics, but I think we can assume that many of these occur in Beverly Hills.

When the big day came, I was nervous on several levels. Signing the arbitration agreement, I became convinced that there would be an earthquake just as the doctor was making his first incision and all the nerves in my face would accidentally be cut and I would go blind. Then I worried that I would not be satisfied with this procedure, that soon I would be back requesting fewer wrinkles, a tighter neck, and a body like Halle Berry's. I'd become one of those women you see in restaurants who can move about only after dark because their skin is stretched so tight and thin that any contact with sunlight might cause it to burst into flame.

What really happened was much less dramatic and much more interesting. Getting a scar excised is a bit like going to the dentist, only you have to take all your clothes off and wear a paper dress. There's the same little prick of the needle to numb the area, the same blinding bright lights, the same rustle of baby-blue paper that medical facilities seem to drape over everything. But unlike at the dentist's, I could talk during the proceedings, a distraction I was grateful for: Although I couldn't feel any pain, I could feel that things were being done, things that did not bear thinking about.

So in lieu of contemplation, I chose conversation and learned many interesting things about the cosmetic surgery industry.

It is, according to my doctor, an economic bellwether--the first thing to go when times get tough, the last to rebound when things improve. Last fall, things were very slow, despite the fact that October and November are usually big months for facial work as folks prepare for holiday parties and family reunions. The other boom time is early spring when a young man's, and woman's, thoughts turn to liposuction. About 35% of patients are men, a number that undoubtedly would be larger should pec implants ever really catch on.

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