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‘Not for sissies’

Tummy tuck. It sounds simple. Even cute.

“It was hell,” she said.

She expected pain. She read the horror stories. Friends warned her. Still, she wasn’t prepared.

“This was very, very major,” she said. “I had the operation last June. My stomach still feels like a trampoline because the muscles are pulled so tight.”

Would she do it again? Suffer that much? Stay in bed that long?

“In a heartbeat,” she said.

She’s 64, long divorced. “Most people think I’m in my 40s. I get asked out all the time, mostly by men in their 40s.”

She feels sexier now, even a little haughty. And naughty. “I can go in Victoria’s Secret and buy a thong. Nobody sees it, but I feel good about it. And I tie up my blouses now and show my navel, my abs.”

“Nancy” (not her real name) said her stomach showed the aftermath of several pregnancies, a hysterectomy and a cycle of losing and gaining weight. For years, she’d thought about a tummy tuck.

“A friend who’s in her 40s had one, and she talked about how it had changed her life.” She also was impressed by an article she read on actress Patricia Heaton. “Patricia Heaton said she’d had multiple plastic surgeries and the one that did the most for her was a tummy tuck.”

But horror stories held her back. “Here’s an article right here in Elle magazine. ‘... A tummy tuck causes patients to hit the pain pills harder than any other procedure ... The line of sutures inside can be a foot and a half long and patients feel every stitch when they move around.’ And I read another article that said it’s the most painful of all surgeries except for chiseling bones.”

But finally, she took the plunge. “I have two grown daughters who had never seen that part of my body. I showed them my tummy, and they told me to go for it. My daughters are real old-fashioned. They’re both schoolteachers. They don’t wear makeup or jewelry. And still they told me to go for it.”

She stayed mostly in bed for the first two weeks, she said. “You walk hunched over. If you have to reach an inch for the phone, it pulls and hurts. You want to walk like a mechanical robot.”

Eight months later, her belly button still feels dead. “A lot of nerves die. I scratch, but I can’t feel anything. But the itching sensation is a sign the nerves are coming back.”

Swelling and fluid retention bloated her for a while, she said, but she eventually lost weight. “Your muscles are pulled so tight over your stomach that when you go to eat, you can’t hold very much. I went down a size.”

People just thought she’d lost weight, she said. “I lightened my hair from black to brownish, and that softened my face. And I got contact lenses. So I made several changes. This one girl said, ‘Gosh, you lost 20 pounds and you look 20 years younger.’ Nobody ever asked me if I’d had plastic surgery.”

The operation cost her $5,750. Nationally, 2002 prices ranged from $5,000 to $9,000, with an average of $6,400.

Apparently, the tummy tuck is plastic surgery’s rising star. “Right now, I’m doing a lot of tummy tucks,” plastic surgeon Andy Stewart reported. “Historically, it’s been breast augmentation.”

According to statistics provided by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, tummy tucks, officially known as abdominoplasties, increased from 58,567 in 2001 to 85,752 in 2002, a 46 percent jump. Last year, surgeons recorded an 18 percent increase over 2002. Tucks have jumped 392 percent since 1992 when surgeons performed only 16,810.

A 47-year-old woman we will call “Sharon” had a tummy tuck last April. Two pregnancies and weight loss left her with stretched-out, saggy skin. “I was already a size 2,” she said. “I just had loose skin.”

She loves the results. Sure, it was painful. “But no pain, no gain. Six weeks later, I went to Cancun and wore a bikini, and it looked great.”

Pain pills and an ice bag got her through the worst of it, she said. “The first two weeks were pretty tough. The worst pain is in your back from walking bent over. I went back to work after 10 days, but I wouldn’t recommend that.”

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, recovery is almost identical to that after a Caesarean section.

“Because you tighten muscles, the tummy tuck is painful in the short run, said Dr. Ted Jackson, “but it’s a wonderful operation. It can undo a lot of changes that occur with childbirth, aging and weight gain. It frees people up to enjoy the outdoors again. They can get back into a swimsuit.”

The surgery takes several hours. Incisions cross the lower abdomen from hipbone to hipbone at the bikini line. A second incision loosens the navel. The surgeon separates the skin from the abdominal wall up to the ribs, lifting the loosened skin to reveal the vertical abdominal muscles. Muscles are tightened by pulling them close together and suturing them. The tighter they’re pulled, the greater the pain during recuperation.

Next, the surgeon pulls the skin back down, removes the excess and closes the incision with stitches. The navel is pulled through a new hole and secured.

Sculpting or contouring with liposuction can enhance the results.

“If you’re happy with the way your tummy looks from the navel up but the skin is hanging from the navel down, you can have a mini tuck,” Stewart explained. In that case, he separates only the skin between the navel and the pubic line incision.

Outer stitches come out in five to seven days, inner stitches in two to three weeks. Scars can take as long as a year to flatten and lighten.

Drainage tubes add to the agony, Nancy said. “The drains are the worst part. I had a friend who would have to go get shots because the pain was so terrible from the drains. She had one taken out and had to put off removing the second one because the pain was so bad.”

But she harbors not one pang of regret. “It’s amazing. I’m tight and smooth from under my breasts to my pubic line. And I’m lucky I had a waist, because this really defines it.”

“Cosmetic surgery is not for sissies,” said Sharon. “It’s no picnic. But if you can afford it, if you have the nerve to do it, if you can tolerate what goes along with it, I would encourage it.

“I believe in this stuff. It’s important to your self-esteem. When you look in the mirror and you like what you see, you think others will like you, too. And that’s a great thing.”

To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, use e-mail or call 348-5173.


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