I’m in Love with My Plastic Surgeon

I’m in love with my plastic surgeon. Well, maybe not in love, but something verging on wanting to eat dinner with him every night, and if that’s not love, what is?

Sure he’s older than me … by a lot. How old? If we must get technical, he’s old enough to be my father. That is, if he knocked my mom up in college. (Not pre-med college. Pre-med would have gotten me out of the, “weird, he’s too old zone.” But if I were a medical school knock-up baby.)

I picture dating him. We’re in his car, and it’s no doubt fancy and made in Europe. This is when the age difference becomes a problem. (Even in my fantasies I allow reality to sneak in.) I point out he’s driving too slow, or that he can cut in front of that car ahead. I ask him for medical advice. He tells me to make an appointment to see a doctor. I remind him he is a doctor.

Why do I love him? Could it be his Spanish accent? Perhaps the way he oozes class? Is it how he examines my body so intensely that I can practically see the artistic wheels of his brain turning? His eyebrows dart up, and an expression that he just witnessed something extraordinary flashes across his face.

It’s none of those things that make me love him, though they do help make the visits more bearable. You see, he is giving me back something that was taken away. Four days after my 40th birthday I was told I had invasive cancer in my right breast. The angry tumor had infiltrated blood vessels, all the while encouraging other cells to start multiplying in different areas.

Mastectomies are amputations of sorts, and how very fortunate we are that (if a candidate) our breasts can be reconstructed right away.  Before we even wake from the anesthesia initially given to use for the breast removal, plastic surgeons slip into the operating room and take over.

This does not make the process any less traumatic, though. The day before my mastectomy, I said farewell to my right breast. I apologized for wanting it larger in junior high and high school. I thanked it for nursing my two children when they were infants. It did its job and served me well. It was a fine little breast, and now it was sick and needed to be removed before it made the rest of me sicker.

The first time I met with my plastic surgeon, I wept gulping messy sobs. All of the biopsies, tests, and other doctor visits I could detach from, but not this. As he showed me where my breast would be removed and what he would do, panic set in.

“But I like my breast,” I said weakly (as if that would change the course of events, as if that would make him say, “Never mind then! Let’s call this whole cancer thing off!”).

“I understand,” he said. “But it has cancer.”

We sat in silence as I digested this, until I was ready to gather myself and listen.

Then he started measuring my shoulders, chest, and my other breast. His eyes lit up. He got that look he gets. He told me how he would take skin from one part of my body and use it. He was confident, and his confidence made me feel confident. I went from despair to hope.

It has been three weeks since my mastectomy. Seeing my body for the first time after was unsettling. I looked lopsided and unfamiliar. I felt less feminine. I still feel less feminine. But my plastic surgeon understands this, and he quickly fills the uncomfortable contraption inserted under my muscle and skin with saline. I watch in fascination as a new breast is formed right before my eyes. I look at him and we smile.

Cancer tries to steal dreams. It tries to infest our healthy body parts with its angry, jealous cells. But we can fight back just as viciously. And we can fight back beautifully and artistically, something cancer cannot do.

My plastic surgeon’s work is pristine and I am overwhelmed. I tell him he is a magician and he agrees (he does not lack pride in his artisanship). It was then I realized I loved him. Not that kind of love, but a love of gratefulness and appreciation.

But I’d still have dinner with him every night, too.

 

 

 

Hand Wash? Hogwash!

Picture this: you are invited to someone’s home for dinner. After greeting you warmly at the door, the hostess excuses herself to use the bathroom. You hear the toilet flush and within seconds the bathroom door immediately opens and she exits. Your hostess proceeds to prepare food for dinner – without washing her hands. Would you want to eat her food? Call me picky or unreasonable, but I would suddenly develop food allergies to everything she had touched as an excuse not to put that food in my mouth.

Hand washing seems pretty intuitive. It’s hardly a complicated matter. Our hands get dirty. We wash them. The end. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) bombards us with facts on why we need to wash our hands, and how we should wash our hands. We all know hand washing stops the spread of viruses and nasty infections. We see commercials on TV, advertisements in magazines, and there are even signs in public restrooms reminding employees to soap up before returning to work.

Surprisingly, the basic concept of hand washing is a relatively new tidbit of disease prevention knowledge. While this controversial subject (yes – it was very controversial) took root in 1847, I tend to believe there were people in previous centuries who discovered that washing one’s hands was a good thing. There had to have an English lass in the Middle Ages who found that when she washed her hands after cleaning the family outhouse, that mysterious stomach virus stopped plaguing her household. But since we don’t know the name of that wise maiden, we give credit to the person who first publicly proclaimed the benefits of using soap and water on our hands.

That person was a Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis. Iggie was working in a Vienna hospital when he noticed something rather peculiar. Women who had their babies delivered by medical students often developed fatal infections after giving birth. Prior to Iggie entering the scene, these deaths were blamed on “an imbalance of humours in the body”. Humours were considered the four chief fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Basically, humours were regarded as the present day ying and yang of human bodily fluids.

While the rest of the obstetrical staff wrote the deaths off to those pesky humours (remember – this was before the existence of personal injury lawyers), Iggie was less convinced.

“Humours schmumours!” Iggie announced. (Actually, he didn’t. Or maybe he did.)

Iggie knew something more was going on than just the four chief body fluids getting out of whack. He decided to investigate.

Lo and behold, Iggie discovered that prior to delivering babies, the medical students were dissecting cadavers. Now, when I gave birth, my doctor practically put on a hazmat suit. But in 1847, medical students performed autopsies on dead bodies before moseying their way upstairs to the birthing room where they proceeded to deliver babies without washing their hands. Let’s simplify this: medical students had their hands deep inside the open cavities of a dead person before putting their unwashed, (and of course ungloved – they weren’t invented yet) hands deep inside “ladies’ cavities”.

Feeling a bit squirmy, ladies? Me too.

Iggie denounced this practice and mandated that all medical students wash their hands in a chloride lime solution after autopsies and prior to delivering babies. The maternal death rate plummeted.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Because nothing is ever simple (and people have a tendency to be stubborn jerks), the medical staff at the Vienna hospital derided Iggie.

“Have you heard what that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is proposing?” a Dr. Dorfmeister said while dining over Weiner Schnitzel.

“It’s outrageous!” Dr. Herrmann said, “Pass me a piece of that Gugelhupf, will you? Washing hands after performing autopsies! What’s next? Washing our hands after using the bathroom and coughing?”

“Hahaha. Oh, Dr. Herrmann. You’re such a card!”

The medical staff ridiculed and mocked poor Iggie. Soon he was dismissed from the Vienna hospital. Upon leaving (and the subsequent cessation of hand washing practices) maternal death rates skyrocketed again. But the medical staff continued to blame those darn humours for the women’s deaths, and not the remnants of dead body particles on the hands of medical students.

Iggie was unable to find work in the Vienna community. No one wanted to hire a handwasher. He moved to Budapest, where he continued to tout his hand washing practices. Similar to Vienna, Budapest doctors were not keen on the idea of washing hands in between delivering babies either. They thought it took too much time, and frankly, they would have to admit that all of those deaths were their fault.

Sadly, the continuous rejection of Iggie’s revolutionary discovery took its toll, and eventually he was admitted to a mental hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The benefits of hand washing weren’t accepted until decades after Iggie’s death.

Today, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is heralded as the pioneer of infection control. Let’s all think of him when we wash our hands later.

The Prostitute

I didn’t notice her enter the Hallmark store. I was up to my elbows in Mother’s Day cards, attempting to find one that didn’t have “mother” scrawled dramatically across the front in cursive letters. (I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever, called my mom ‘mother’ – but apparently Hallmark seems to think that is quite common.) It was then that I noticed the two teenage employees whispering and pointing to something behind me.

Turning, I saw a prostitute looking at cards. She was clad in thigh-high, high heeled boots, miniskirt, and a shirt that exposed her stomach. Basically, she resembled Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman before she cleans up. The prostitute then moved to where I was standing and, shamefully, I lowered my head and acted as though I was engrossed in what I was reading.

I tried to focus on finding a card for my mom, but I have to admit it was a challenge. The prostitute reeked of powdery perfume that was so strong I could practically taste it. The two employees were also doing a not-so-subtle job of watching her. Each time I  reached for a different card I couldn’t help but notice the two teenage employees who were whispering to one another and staring at the prostitute. When I finally found a card I liked, I approached the cash register only to stand behind the prostitute I had been trying so hard to ignore.

She was digging around in her denim purse before she carefully placed the money, a dollar at a time, on the counter. Avoiding eye contact with the prostitute, the one teenage employee who was operating the cash register took the money with her fingertips and quickly dropped it into the cash drawer, as though the money were contaminated.

The prostitute asked the two teenage employees if she could borrow a pen. The other teenage employee mechanically handed a pen over and stared, speechless, as the prostitute bent over her Mother’s Day card and wrote. As the prostitute filled out her card, the two employees nonchalantly looked down at what she was writing  before looking at one another and smirking.

“Thank you,” the prostitute said as she handed the pen back.

Without a word, the teenage employee took the pen and continued to stare as the the prostitute left the store.

The other teenage employee exhaled, as though she had been holding her breath.  “Did you see that?” she asked me.

“Yes.  She was pretty hard not to notice,” I answered as I put my card on the counter.

“Did you see what she wrote?” the teenage employee asked. Without waiting for an answer she said, “She wrote ‘Happy Mother’s Day Mommy’.  But get this: she spelled “mommy” m-o-m-e-e.  She didn’t know how to spell mommy!”

Both girls burst out laughing.

I paid for my card and left.  As I headed towards my car I saw the the prostitute walking down the road, clutching the Hallmark bag that contained the card she had so carefully chosen for her mom.

We rarely see these women in such common places as a Hallmark store or grocery market. And no wonder. Even I admit that I stole a few glances at her. And yet, we forget that they were once little girls who giggled and wore nightgowns and loved ice cream. We forget that these women were once little girls who dreamed of being a princess, or of growing up to be a movie star. But something terrible happened to them.

After her purchase, the prostitute was headed back to the streets; back to pimps, drugs, and abuse. This was not the Hollywood version of prostitution. I am sure she wished Richard Gere was waiting to rescue her from the horrors of her lifestyle.

I think it’s safe to say that it is only out of desperation that a woman (or worse yet: girl) becomes a prostitute. It’s not as if she woke up one morning and said, “Ya know, I think I am going to leave this perfectly good job and have sex with strange men for money despite the risk of disease and my personal safety.” The majority of prostitutes, if not all, fall into it as a desperate way to support a drug addiction or as a result of past sexual abuse. Usually both.

While her lifestyle was vastly different than mine, she still had a love for her “momee.” The prostitute and I were looking at the same cards, each thinking of our own moms.  The love she had for her mom was no less than the love I have for mine. Yet, I was not subjected to whispers, mocking and judgement when I purchased my Mother’s Day Card.

Later that day as I filled out the card for my mom, I couldn’t stop thinking of the prostitute. I wish I had made eye contact with her. I wish I had smiled and said hello. That would have made my mom prouder than anything I wrote in her card.

Special thanks to Heather Dellamore, editor extraordinaire,  for her thoughts and guidance while writing this.