The Plastic Surgeon Knows Best:
A Hazardous Assumption
Two incidents, within four hours, seemingly disparate, were instructive nevertheless. The first was in the barber shop, where I paid a long overdue visit. The hair stylist – there are no more barbers left in the world – was a woman, whom I had not seen before. She was one-half my age and a hundred times as attractive. She was sitting in her own chair, brushing Lady Godiva length hair muttering that her friend – another “stylist” – had “ruined” her.
“She cut too much off,” she said.
My fantasy was that her hair previously must have trailed like a bridal train.
This is a good sign, I told myself. She will not prune me excessively, something that is easier to do with each year. To my request for a “light trim,” she replied, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. You’ll like the result.”
That last statement triggered an iota of apprehension but I gave myself over to her obvious charm and flying fiingers. I must have dozed and awoke to a World War II soldier staring back at me from the mirror. I look like an old recruit, perhaps a General Schwarzkopf but without his girth or tanks.
Then a more primal fear seized me. Maybe my modern hair stylist was really an incarnated Delilah. That thought sent my strength ebbing as I went to my car and then to the office – for the second incident.
This was a new patient, a twenty-eight year old writer, who was displeased with the outcome of her rhinoplasty done elsewhere.
“I told him that I wanted surgery only on the tip,” she said. “I even wrote him a note to that effect and also specified it on the operative permit. I couldn’t believe what I looked like when he took off the splint. He had given me a total nose job. When I protested and asked him what he had done to me during the operation, he got very angry and practically yelled, ‘It’s none of your business. I was the surgeon and I know what is best for you.’ ”
Her plastic surgeon and my barber have forgotten that my hair and her nose belonged to each of us respectively and not to anyone else. They also shared the same deficiency: not listening. But there is more involved: namely, arrogance. After they have finished with their work, we are left holding the result. Of course, I do not equate my Marine hair cut with her new nose. With God’s grace, in a few weeks I will regain what I had but she will not.
I believe it was Osler who advised us to listen to the patient because he or she will tell us what is wrong and if we listen longer, the patient will tell us what to do. I am afraid that each of us occasionally ignores or forgets that verity. The patient becomes somehow incidental to our treatment which we impose without proper regard for that person’s sensibilities and desires.
This phenomenon of not taking into meaningful account what the patient wants I have observed more among older practitioners. Perhaps they feel that they are beyond the restrictions that usually apply to other plastic surgeons. This kind of megalomania is not without possible severe repercussions -- the kind that take place in a court room.
In our specialty, more crimes are of commission than omission. fewer problems result from doing less than from attempting more. One would think that the older plastic surgeon would appreciate doing less in order to conserve his or her strength. Maybe the issue is one of routine: performing “the operation” instead of the right operation. The patient who receives more than he or she requested is about as grateful as the diner who was served Beef Wellington when he wanted a green salad.
When breast augmentation and reduction patients ask me what size they should “go for.” I tell them my opinion, but also tell them they should decide “what they want.”
I have been known to use the example of me making them a dress in a lovely green silk. The dress fits perfectly, the color suits their skin/hair/eye coloring, BUT I find out too late they hate the color green.
So while it is my duty to listen, my patients must tell me what they want. Then we can have a discussion about whether it is possible, etc.