My Facelift at 54 Years Old, 2004

When I was about seven or eight in the 1950s, I told my mom and six sisters that when I get old, “I’m having a facelift!” They laughed. I insisted. I was dreaming of an impossible luxury. I thought by the time I needed one, science would offer a new way to do it, and do it cheaper.

Norman Mailer had two deep thought lines over his nose, often hidden with glasses. However, on a woman, walking down a street, even with glasses, men ordered me to smile. Customs officers ordered my luggage inspected. Students feared angering me. Overseas job applications demanded a photo. I needed a new look. The author of the First Wives Club died from her facelift when she was 54. She was a smoker. I was 54. I was a light, social smoker. I stopped smoking.

Imagine my shock to learn from a Seattle hospital that a facelift was a three-operation procedure, with a three-operation price: $10,000 each for the ‘brow lift’, ‘the eyes’ and ‘the jowls and neck’. Thirty thousand.

A friend who had had a tummy tuck recommended her doctor. His facelifts, in his clinic, cost less than $10,000. If I became a ‘bleeder’ I’d be transferred immediately to the hospital a few yards away and billed for procedures used to save my life. I hoped that would not happen.

The doctor was required by law to read me a list of 30 questions for each of the three procedures. I answered the 90 questions and signed on the dotted line three times, that yes, I knew this would not change my life, my marital status, earn me a higher salary, and I could die. By the time I was in a dentist-like chair, ready to be put to sleep the next day, I was terrified. I had prepared by avoiding YouTube videos about facelifts.

The Nigerian doctor entered the room wearing a white coat with a blue ink stains by his upper pocket. Maybe he was a scam artist? I told him and the anesthesiologist who was readying the needle how terrified I was. “We can stop the procedure now, if you like,” the doctor said.

“Why does your jacket have pen marks smeared by the pocket?” I asked. To my horror he answered, “This is my lucky lab coat.”

I looked from him to the anesthesiologist in surprise. Stop? That option lasted a nano second. “Just because I’m afraid, doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it.” I said. “I’m just as afraid of needles as I am of the whole operation, so don’t pay attention to me. Just get that needle in me and knock me out, okay?”

I paid the extra $150 to have a nurse accompany me home to my tiny summer studio sublet. I don’t know why she fed me if she knew I was going to vomit. But she removed the original bandages which wrapped my entire head, replaced them, fed me Vicodin, and left. I was sadly surprised I didn’t experience any kind of illegal high.

Two plastic bulbs hung near my ears to drain excess blood. I couldn’t read the small print on telephone cards to call my friends. The doctor said that should clear up in a few days. I covered my head and the offending bulbs with a black scarf when I walked to the corner grocery store. I overhead one neighbor complain, “This isn’t a hospital.”

A friend was totally unprepared for my new look: full head bandages and bulbs collecting blood. She escorted me to the doctor’s. Afterwards, she was as happily shocked at my new look as I was.

I looked weird! Not at all like myself! My face had changed from square-ish to oval with a high forehead. No longer did fatty tissue nearly cover one eye and shadow the other. Later a friend noted my nose lifted a bit so my nostrils were now visible. And the frown/squint/thought lines had vanished!

Was it worth it? After a month with the new face, I slept with frozen blueberries on my forehead and accepted a job in South Korea, where I had worked years earlier. I replaced blueberries with a blue plastic eye contraption which I re-froze each morning. The icy cold numbed my aching head and forehead, allowing sleep.

Rather than pain, I had exhaustion. Without Vicodin, by the time I was dressed and ready for work, I couldn’t open my apartment door. With the pills, I could walk the 20 minutes to work and teach class. When I ran out, a local doctor said Korea didn’t have Vicodin; he prescribed what was given cancer patients.

At the school, I was given two huge books for one class and told to write a syllabus for tomorrow. In a new academic environment, with new stress, and constant rushing to the far-away bathroom to prevent diarrhea accidents, life became precarious. One time I reached the bathroom, but not the toilet. When my 97-year-old father said he was dying and, “Come home,” I did.

Much later I learned that mixing caffeine (Pepsi or Coke a Cola) with pain pills nearly always causes diarrhea.

Four years later, I look at my face and I’m pleased. Knowing what I do now – I’d do it again. But it was scary. And it didn’t take ‘six weeks for recovery’. It was more like three months. And if I had known about the mix of caffeine with Vicodin, recovery would have been more tolerable. But yes, I’d do it again. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It’s too scary and the risks are too high.

Thirteen years later, with lasers and acid peels to remove a huge old-age spot on my face, I still look ten years younger. The investment proved worthwhile.

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