Cutting Through the Surface
A JOURNEY TO THE OPERATING ROOM TO RECONCILE THE OUTSIDE WITH THE IN
Story by Keegan Prosser
Photos by Jordan Stead
It’s recess time, the first day of school, September 1994.
I’m in first grade and I’m standing on the playground at Lowell Elementary in Tacoma, Wash.
A girl approaches me, her brown bob tucked carefully into a headband; she’s in my class, but I can’t remember her name. “What’s on your face?” she asks, pointing at the reddish-purple sore that devours my bottom lip. “It’s my birth mark,” I explain. “Oh.” End scene.
I was born with a hemangioma, a rapidly growing benign tumor of blood vessels, that attacked my throat and left my bottom lip unrecognizable by the time I was 1 year old.
A literal stain on my face, my hemangioma garnered a lot of unwanted attention for the majority of my childhood.
Plastic surgery offered me the chance to fix that — to alter my outside in order to showcase the inside.
To begin, I will say this: I have had more surgical procedures in 21 years than most people will have thei
r entire life.
Hemangiomas form within the first month of life, grow, stabilize and begin to regress.
In more serious cases, like mine, they continue to grow. The aggressive tumors can cause obstruction of sight and breathing—as well as permanent disfigurement.
I had my first surgery at two weeks old—a laser procedure during which surgeons vaporized the soft tissue inside my throat, causing blood vessels to clot and the tumor to stop growing.
However, the tumor continued to grow up my throat, into my mouth and out. I was back for a second procedure when I was three months old.
By the time I was 7 years old, my pediatrician, Dr. Lawrence Larsen of Tacoma, referred me to plastic surgeon Dr. Braden Stridde, of Puget Sound Plastic Surgery.
At this point, Dr. Stridde performed external laser treatments on my chin and neck, destroying the blood vessels and stopping the growth of the tumor.
My mom promised if I went through with the surgery, I could get my ears pierced.
The next day, with my face a lovely shade of lavender, I went to Claire’s.
While reconstructive surgery aims to restore the previous shape, form or function of the body, cosmetic surgery’s goal is to enhance, improve and make more attractive these things.
According to these definitions, I believe I am patient of both.
At 13 years old I had my first invasive plastic surgery.
During this procedure, Dr. Stridde cut a 1-centimeter sized wedge of skin from my lip, removing a large section of scar tissue.
He used an ultrasound machine to heat the vessels on my face and performed liposuction to remove four ounces of blood vessels and fatty tissue from underneath my jaw. Although effective, the weeks that followed are a painful reminder as to why I have no desire to do liposuction again.
In June 2003 I had a second major cosmetic surgery.
During this procedure, Dr. Stridde cut my bottom lip horizontally, and rolled out the vermillion — the pink skin found on the inside the bottom lip — to create a more “normal” lip.
Finally, I thought, I am going to look like everyone else.
Since my procedures, the focus of Dr. Stridde’s practice has shifted. Although he does some reconstructive work, he said cosmetics are more viable for his business.
According to statistics released by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 10.2 million cosmetic surgical and non-surgical procedures were performed in the United States in 2008 — adding up to just under $12 billion.
Nationally, the most popular plastic surgery procedures for women include breast augmentation, liposuction and eyelid surgery. Liposuction, Rhinoplasty and eyelid surgery were ranked highest for men.
While this pattern rings true in Bellingham, it would be safe to say the audience is much more tame.
“The majority of people don’t come in here and say ‘Make me look like I am 18,’” says Dr. James Howell Blackburn II, a plastic surgeon at Plastic Surgery Bellingham. “And they definitely don’t want to look like they’ve done plastic surgery.”
Most patients just want to look healthy and comfortable in their own skin.
This was the case for me.
It has been seven years since the last time I stepped foot in Dr. Stridde’s surgical center.
Today I find myself in a 10-by-15 foot operating room. A heavily sedated body lies 10 inches away. The patient, a 36-year-old woman, is having a tummy tuck and breast augmentation.
“She is having sort of a ‘mommy makeover,’” the receptionist says.
Dr. Stridde carefully cuts the woman’s abdomen, cauterizing the blood vessels as he peels a flab of skin and fat away from the muscles.
The buzzing of machines fills the room as the scent of blood and burning flesh wafts beneath my mask.
“Does this constitute ‘inside?’” Dr. Stridde says, inching his right hand under the flab of raw skin while stitching the muscles tightly together.
My journey with plastic surgery has been a long but rewarding one. While advances in surgery offer new opportunities to create a more “perfect” me each day, I think I’m content with the procedures I’ve already done.
The inside is great. Now, so is the out.