Tell me your cosmetic secrets

I live and work in Los Angeles, one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world. Quite a few of my patients have “had a little work done” — the blandly euphemistic term you’ll hear for plastic surgery makeovers of all kinds. That’s fine. Plastic surgeons have children to feed too.

The problem is this: many of my patients want to convince everyone that their “look” is entirely natural. They don’t want to admit that they’ve had a tummy tuck, an eyelid lift, or breast implants. One patient tried to tell me that the perfectly matched scars behind her ears were the result of a car accident, not a face lift. In front of family members, patients will even deny having dentures. That’s understandable, but unwise from a medical point of view.

The fact is that plastic surgery has implications for future medical care. Your anesthesiologist needs to know about it, and your surgeon does too. It may be cosmetic, but it’s still a bigger deal than getting your eyebrows waxed.

Here’s why we need to know the cosmetic secrets our patients may NOT want to tell us.

Why does a tummy tuck matter?

One of the worst complications I’ve seen after plastic surgery happened to a lovely patient who, years before, had an abdominoplasty, popularly known as a “tummy tuck”, with a very good cosmetic result. Many women request this procedure once they’ve finished having children, to tighten up the skin and smooth out the appearance of the abdomen. The incision is similar to the one for a cesarean section, across the lower abdomen, though it extends further to each side. Once it’s well healed, it may barely be visible.

Years later, the patient needed major surgery on her liver, and the surgeon made an incision known as a “chevron” or “rooftop” – an incision across the upper abdomen, just below the ribcage. The surgical team didn’t realize she’d had a prior abdominoplasty, and the patient never thought to mention it.

The blood supply to her abdominal wall had been interrupted from below by the abdominoplasty incision, and now was interrupted from above by the chevron incision. The skin and soft tissue of the patient’s whole abdominal wall essentially died and turned black from lack of blood flow and oxygen, a condition called tissue necrosis. The patient needed extensive skin grafting and several surgical procedures for reconstruction.

What about breast implants?

For the most part, breast implants don’t matter much in terms of subsequent surgery – unless you need an operation that involves your chest. Surgery on the lungs or esophagus often is done today with a minimally invasive technique called video-assisted thoracoscopy, where the surgeon inserts slender instruments and a tiny camera through small incisions in the chest wall. It would be easy to rupture a breast implant unless the surgeon knows it’s there and can work around it.

Chin enhancement?

Chin enhancement surgery, or genioplasty, may involve inserting a small plastic implant to improve the appearance of a receding or “weak” chin. It may seem like a trivial procedure, and the tiny scar beneath the chin may be hard to spot. But please tell your anesthesiologist if you have a chin implant! A receding chin is a facial feature that can alert the anesthesiologist to possible trouble inserting a breathing tube. It’s important for us to know if a patient’s chin didn’t always look the way it does today.

(As an aside, it’s not uncommon for men to grow beards as a cheaper, easier way to conceal a receding chin. An experienced anesthesiologist knows to look for this feature when evaluating the patient’s airway prior to surgery.)

Eyelid lifts? False eyelashes?

Eyelid lift, or blepharoplasty, is done to remove excess or sagging skin from the eyelids. It’s also popular among East Asian patients (both men and women) who want to alter the shape of their eyelids for a more “western” look.

After a blepharoplasty, the eyes may not close completely if a patient is sedated or unconscious during another operation. If the eyes aren’t fully shut, they may dry out because the patient isn’t blinking normally. The delicate corneas may develop micro-cracks, which cause pain when the patient wakes up just like any other corneal scratch or injury. Oxygen from a face mask blowing past partially open eyes may also cause the corneas to dry out and become red and painful. If we know that you’ve had a blepharoplasty, we can take extra precautions to protect your eyes and keep them moisturized.

False eyelashes or eyelash extensions can easily be damaged during surgery. This is because the anesthesiologist usually protects the patient’s eyes from corneal scratches by putting tape or a transparent dressing over the eyelids. When the tape comes off at the end of surgery, the eyelashes can come with it. If you’ve just paid $150 or more for a full set of lashes, I can understand why you’d be upset. If you mention that you have them on, we can use goggles to protect your eyes and leave the eyelashes undisturbed.

We promise not to tell

The take-home message to patients? Please tell us your cosmetic secrets. Send your family members off to get coffee before you talk to us if you don’t want them to know. But what we – your anesthesiologist and your surgeon – DON’T know about your cosmetic history, unfortunately, can hurt you. We promise not to tell.

2 COMMENTS

karen

Dear Dr. Sprengel, That's a great point! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. All the best, Karen Sibert

Jean Sprengel, MD

I am also an anesthesiologist in an adjacent cosmetic surgery capitol, Orange County, CA. I recently had a patient whose muscle relaxation I was trying to assess using the peri-oribital muscles. The results were not making sense. I finally realized that the patient had extensive Botox and moved to test other muscles. I then remembered that I had seen this same phenomenon a few years back. We need to know about Botox, too, not just surgical interventions.

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Do you think I went too far in my last blog post, calling out some journalists as “pontificating parasites” who love nothing more than to slam physicians and blame us for the cost of healthcare?

If you do, then you must not have read Elisabeth Rosenthal’s latest salvo in the Feb. 16 New York Times, where she says physicians are in “a three-way competition for your money” with hospitals and insurers, as if we’re all equally well-funded players at a craps table.

Even National Public Radio, often no friend to physicians, acknowledges that physician pay adds up to a mere eight percent of total US healthcare costs.

What stings even more, hearing that kind of accusation from Ms. Rosenthal, is that she used to be a physician herself before she quit emergency medicine to edit Kaiser Health News. I’m sure it’s a better gig: no nights, no weekends, no holidays. But, as Julius Caesar noted, it’s always worse when the stab in the back comes from someone you thought of as a colleague, if not a friend.

Surprise medical bills

The topic of Ms. Rosenthal’s one-sided op-ed is out-of-network billing, also known as “surprise” billing. Emergency physicians (along with anesthesiologists) may be the doctors most often accused of not being “in-network” with insurance companies and sending patients large “surprise” bills after the fact.

However, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), which represents Ms. Rosenthal’s former colleagues, is no happier than anyone else about out-of-network bills. “Much of this conflict over surprise billing is playing out in the media,” ACEP notes, “and insurers have been trying their hardest to paint emergency physicians in a bad light.”

ACEP is right. The facts about out-of-network bills, and the history behind them, differ from what Ms. Rosenthal would have the public believe.

What is a narrow network?

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Jeffrey Shapiro, MD

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karen

Dear Dr. Watson, Right under Elisabeth Rosenthal's byline, in the columnn I was referring to, the Times states: "Ms. Rosenthal, a journalist and physician, is a contributing opinion writer." I can only assume that if she objected to that, she would let the Times know. I am simply following their lead. She is not listed as certified by the ABEM, nor is she listed as a licensed physician in California, where Kaiser Health News is based. Her opinions seem so out of date regarding the ...Read More

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If physicians are “muggers” and co-conspirators in “taking money away from the rest of us”, then journalists and economists are pontificating parasites who produce no goods or services of any real value.

I don’t think either is true, but the recent attacks on physicians by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, and “media professional” Cynthia Weber Cascio, deserve to be called out. You could make a case for consigning them permanently, along with the anti-vaccination zealots, to a healthcare-free planet supplied with essential oils, mustard poultices, and leeches.

My real quarrel with them — and with the Washington Post, which published their comments — is that they have the courage of the non-combatants: the people who criticize but have no idea what it’s like to do a physician’s work. More about that in a moment.

Ms. Cascio was enraged by the bill from her general surgeon, who wasn’t in her insurance network at the time she needed an emergency appendectomy. She doesn’t care — and why would she? — that insurance companies increasingly won’t negotiate fair contracts, and it isn’t the surgeon’s fault that Maryland hasn’t passed a rational out-of-network payment law like New York’s, which should be the model for national legislation. She doesn’t care that Maryland’s malpractice insurance rates are high compared with other states, averaging more than $50,000 per year for general surgeons. She just wants to portray her surgeon as a villain.

The two economists are indignant that American physicians make more money than our European colleagues, though they don’t share our student loan debt burden or our huge administrative overhead for dealing with insurance companies. They resent that some American physicians are in the enviable “1%” of income earners. But do they have any real idea what physicians do every day?

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127 COMMENTS

Gregory Craner

I was overhearing a conversation as the person was complaining about his anesthesia bill. "All he did was put me to sleep!" I could not contain myself and asked him if he woke up. When he said yes I told him anyone can put someone to sleep he was paying for the expertise to wake him up! I have read a lot about physician burnout and its relation to the increasing administrative and data keeping burdens. This is the first time I ...Read More

Lawrence Tenkman

Very interesting article. Being a doc / surgeon has a lot of pressure. I read the original article though. Important to hear both sides always: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-health-care-industry-is-letting-surgeons-behave-like-muggers/2020/01/13/f2089094-3636-11ea-bb7b-265f4554af6d_story.html#comments-wrapper She shouldn’t call the doc a mugger... he saved her life. He had to work 120 weeks I bet to get through residency. So many of a general surgeon’s cases are emergent / middle of the night. Very hard on a person. But for some reason, the surgeon fee was 6 times what it would be ...Read More

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As a newcomer to the Orthodox faith more than 20 years ago, I can still remember my first sight of the profusion of holy icons when I walked into an Orthodox church, and how foreign they seemed – severe yet serene, so different from the rotund Renaissance images of the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary that fill non-Orthodox churches and decorate western Christmas cards.

After a day listening to the teaching of Kh. Randa Al Khoury Azar, a professional iconographer and a faculty member at the Antiochian House of Studies, I am delighted to have more insight into the deeper meaning of Orthodox icons and the scholarship that goes into their preparation and writing. She spoke at a retreat held recently at St. Simeon Orthodox Christian Church.

Kh. Randa began the day with an explanation of the purpose of icons in Orthodoxy. They are not to be worshipped, but venerated and honored. “Worship is for God, and only God,” Kh. Randa said. “Icons are a means of honoring God, his saints, and the holy angels. The honor that is given to the icon passes to its prototype.”

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1 COMMENT

Ramona

This is a wonderful article about icons, and is very enlightening to understand what it takes to write an icon. Thank you for sharing Dr. Karen!

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“Each man or woman is ill in his or her own way,” Dr. Abraham Verghese told the audience at the opening session of ANESTHESIOLOGY 2019, the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. In his address, titled “Humanistic Care in a Technological Age,” Dr. Verghese said, “What patients want is recognition from us that their illness is at least somewhat unique.”

Though we in anesthesiology have only limited time to see patients before the start of surgery, Dr. Verghese reassured listeners that this time has profound and immense value. He pointed out that there is “heightened drama around each patient” in the preoperative setting. “Everything you do matters so much,” he said. What patients look for are signs of good intentions and competence, and the key elements are simple: “the tone of voice, warmth, putting a hand on the patient.”

Dr. Verghese, a professor of internal medicine at Stanford University and the acclaimed author of novels including the best-selling Cutting for Stone, believes that patient dissatisfaction and physician burnout are the inevitable consequences of today’s data-driven healthcare system, where physicians seldom connect with patients on a personal level or perform a thoughtful, unhurried physical examination. “Our residents average 60 percent of their time on the medical record,” he said.

“It’s the ‘4000 clicks’ problem,” Dr. Verghese said, citing a study in which emergency room physicians averaged 4000 mouse clicks over a 10-hour shift, and spent 43 percent of their time on data entry but only 28 percent in direct patient contact.

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1 COMMENT

Neal Koss

I loved his book and now I see he is also a great speaker. I wish I had been there.

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