I Miss My Face
On October 30, 2007, I went to an outpatient surgery center to have a sinus polyp removed. I had no sinus symptoms, but the doctor had said it should be removed. That morning, I looked in the mirror and saw my face for the last time.
I had strong cheekbones and a shapely nose and full lips. At fifty-five, my cheeks and forehead were smooth, my eyes unlined. My hair was thick and curly. My morning facial routine consisted of splashing water on my face and smoothing on cheap moisturizer.
It was the same face I’d been tending all my adult life, a permutation of the face I’d come to know as a child.
I was proud of it because—as they say—when you are young, you have the face that you’ve been given. In later life, you have the face that you’ve earned. My face was tranquil, untouched by the trials of my life.
After the surgery that October morning, the face in the mirror was that of a different woman. It was a tortured face—swollen, baggy and lined. The face was not merely etched by pain; it was twisted and warped by it. Frightened eyes peered out of dark hollows, above water balloons festooned over sunken cheeks.
There was not even the consolation that I might recover. Parts of my nose had been amputated. The cartilage that had padded the bones and formed the angles was gone. What remained of the nose had been shortened, leaving too much space between the nose and lips. The bridge had been narrowed, giving me a pinched expression. The extra forehead skin furrowed into folds over muscles knotted in pain. The nostrils were pulled up, creating a porcine look. I was no longer pleasing. I was no longer me.
The surgeon had drilled through my cheekbones, ripped out my mucosa, and removed a pile of bone and cartilage measuring nearly two inches by two inches. I had sinus polyps, but this radical surgery, called a Caldwell-Luc, is not the standard of treatment for that. I did not have a deviated septum, pre-surgery—the surgeon’s rationale for doing a septoplasty—but I do have one, now.
That’s the least of my worries. Much of my inner nose was removed, creating a condtion called Empty Nose Syndrome or ENS. The remaining structures, called turbinates, are atrophic—dried up. I no longer have functioning mucosa. I produce virtually no moisture, which I now know is responsible for the feeling of well-being within the body. My nose cannot do its job. I irrigate it twice daily in order to clear it of debris. The mucous membranes around my eyes have dried up. I am plagued by chronic infections. I cannot breathe or sleep well due to missing turbinate tissue which provides the resistance and the nerve sensation of breathing. My whole body is drier. I have rashes and osteoarthritis.
Given my physical suffering and the potential for continuing decline, no one can understand why I care about my face. “All that really matters is your health,” I’ve heard a hundred times. “Don’t worry about your face.”
Before my one-year statute of limitations expired, lawyers to whom I spoke sometimes wanted to meet me. They wanted to see my face. “We can’t do anything about your face,” they said. “It’s normal. The jury will see a normal face.” That just blew my mind. Yes, It’s a normal face. But it is not my face. You can’t sue a doctor who amputates your face?
Not even plastic surgeons get it. “The easiest way to fix it is to make the lower third smaller to match the upper two-thirds,” one said. Excuse me? You want to cut off more of my nose?
In my dreams, I have my real face. A face is not a thing that is randomly handed out as we pass through the portal between heaven and earth. It is something much more deeply bound to who we are. Whether or not we admit it, or are even aware, we are profoundly affected by the faces of those we meet. On some level, we know that a face gives us information about who a person is, on the inside.
This part of what happened to me, on the operating table, is a terrible injury.
I am aware that others have suffered far worse disfigurement. I take my hat off to those who have worked through such pain.
What I do not understand is why doctors and lawyers, and others, are not as scandalized as me that a doctor took the liberty of altering my face as I lay unconscious under his knife. “You don’t look that bad,” is not an adequate response to what he did.
Where is the outrage? How have we gotten to the point that a doctor can wantonly mutilate the face and body of a patient, and it is not that big of a deal? Lawyers may agree that such a case is malpractice, but doubt they can sway a jury. Lawyers are on the money, as most others do not think the loss of one’s unique face is that injurious.
Have we bought into the myth that doctors are gods? Have we so over-reacted to a spate of frivolous lawsuits, that we don’t know how to react to genuine malpractice anymore? Doctors need to be accountable to their patients. They need to show respect for the human body and the human being. And we need to insist that they do.