Plastic surgeons are giving it away. Nurses and receptionists do their work and get a perk. Then, nipped and tucked for next to nothing, they end up as ads for their boss's skill with a scalpel.
By Judy Bachrach
Photo Editor: Michelle Allison Fuertes
Mary Ellen Mark
To document the women featured in “Tit for Tat,” a report on plastic surgeons’ employees who get (and flaunt) free procedures, Mark photographed them in their underwear. “This way you could see what had been done to their bodies, and it gave the pictures a surreal quality.” Most of the women were very comfortable in front of the camera, she says. “A lot of them have had a lot of work done, and their bodies look great.”
As everyone in the field is fond of saying, plastic surgery was once the province of the very rich and very famous. Refashioned faces, remolded breasts, and streamlined stomachs‑all these forms of beautification were, just a few decades ago, fleshy analogues of the royal yacht: If you had to ask what it cost, you probably weren't in the market.
Since a major determinant of success in our society is the unlined face and structured body, more and more women ‑both mentally and physically‑ are offering up some sagging portion of themselves to a scalpel. What hasn't changed, alas, is the expense. Fork over $17,000 these days and you can set back the clock for maybe a decade ‑your checkbook for all eternity.
But getting something for nothing is the American dream, the American way.
And for a few of the patriots among us, it's easy. Just land the right job. "Yep, I offer one of life's greatest fringe benefits to my staff," explains Edward Truppman, a cheerful Miami plastic surgeon whose anesthetist, insurance clerk, and nurse (ranging in age from 20 to 76) have all received "thousands and thousands of dollars" worth of free surgery. "I give the people who work for me whatever they're looking for. Well, I'm a softie. I also did the surgery on my ex‑mother‑in‑law, who worked for me after I got divorced. And my present mother‑in‑law I also did. Frankly, they are in the best position to see how good or bad you are as a surgeon."
Hey. Look them over.
Lorie Hoffer (left) can thank her boss for her eye job, tummy tuck, and liposuction. Karen Soderberg can thank her boss for the breast augmentation. In turn, he can thank them for showing off his work.
Free or seriously discounted, cosmetic surgery is by no means a rare perk among employees. "This is part of our hiring: We say to our staff, 'At the end of every year you can have another procedure," explains San Antonio plastic surgeon Tolbert Wilkinson, who sports a cowboy hat, boots, a fine line of patter, and a good sense of humor. "As someone once said to me, 'Supposing one of your staff got her nose done elsewhere and that doctor screwed it up‑you'd have to fire her!"
It certainly helps from a marketing standpoint," says Lorie Hoffer, a business manager who displays close‑ups of her liposuction, upper blepharoplasty, UltraPulse laser treatment, and tummy tuck to inquiring patients at the office of a prominent Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon. "If you did something surgical, the patients are apt to feel more comfortable having it themselves. It opens the door."
Yes, a woman can walk into any major plastic surgeon's office and view her future body parts at the front desk. The person behind it will likely be more than delighted to discuss and display. "It's great advertising, good PR. I say, 'These are my scars, this was my recovery period'‑and that way the patient bonds with you," says Susan Whyel, a nurse working for surgeon John Grossman, who has transformed, among others, Dolly Parton and the Sultan of Brunei. Why shouldn't an RN in search of Botox be as fortunate as a stubby guy with a harem?
Indeed, the first office worker who comes into view may still be openly and unapologetically recovering from her latest procedure. "At this point three people in our office are in various stages of red and peeling," says Whyel. Lee Hastings, a Dallas medical assistant, had no qualms about returning to work just ten days after her face‑lift, still a little puffy and bruised. "When a patient sees me," she says, "they have either been there or they know they're going there."
"The main thing patients ask me is whether my new breasts feel like they're a part of my body," says financial coordinator Robin Shumaker of Davis, California (a former 34 A cup who evolved, courtesy of surgeon Keith Brewer, into a D cup). "I am very open about it. I have pictures of myself, before and after, which I show. In fact, all the people in our office have had plastic surgery except Dr. Brewer."
Tolbert Wilkinson ticks off a lengthy list. "Let's see: Our operating‑room technician had her breasts enlarged. Our office manager had a tummy tuck, second liposuction, and a breast lift. Our last three nurses all had breast surgery and their eyelids done. Our two secretaries had tummy tucks, breast implants, eyelids‑one also had a face‑lift. Our night nurse, a part‑timer, had a face‑lift, chemical peel, and fat grafts to fill in her lines. Generally, this is about an $8,000 bonus."
A little pause for the clincher: "And almost everyone in our office has had their lips enhanced. You know, most Texas girls just have to have big lips, big hair, big breasts. And then some of 'em are so proud of their enlarged breasts that they drop their blouses for our new patients right then and there!"
Doctor knows best.
“I paid for the hospitalization,” says Randi Warren, a New York anesthesiologist. “But my surgery was free, and of course the anesthesia was totally free because I had a friend do it.”
In fact, the doctor who offers discounted surgery to staffers may soon reap impressive rewards. "A lot of people have decided to get their breasts augmented since seeing me," explains Karen Soderberg, who is in charge of patient accounts for Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon Ronald Perlman. Soderberg paid a mere $1,200 for the job ‑the hospital fee. "At least five of his patients have asked for a breast job in the last three months," says Soderberg. "Seven in all, because of me."
"I donate to my employees one surgical day a year, but it's for their benefit and mine really," says surgeon Fritz Barton of Dallas. "I think it would be very peculiar if a doctor employed women who would potentially benefit from plastic surgery and none of them had it done. If I were a patient, that would concern me very much."
Lower‑echelon medical assistants may have to pay for their anesthetic or even a portion of the surgeon's fees. Not so doctors themselves, who are the ones most likely to get plastic surgery at the very lowest possible price. "I paid for the hospitalization, but my surgery was free, and of course the anesthesia was totally free because I had a friend do it," reports New York anesthesiologist Randi Warren, who often works with famed plastic surgeon Alan Matarasso at the Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital, about half of whose patients are there for cosmetic surgery.
Naturally, after some time in that inspirational environment, Warren got ideas. "The whole place made me so much more aware of myself: You know, like, I can fix this, I can fix that." Among the doctor's many areas of enhancement‑thanks to various surgeon friends‑were her eyes, nose, stomach, upper arms, and thighs.
Indeed, judging by the responses from nurses, receptionists, and bookkeepers, the longer a woman works in the beauty field, the more certain and inevitable is her surgery. "I got my eyes done faster than I ever thought I would," recalls medical assistant Lee Hastings. "After working for Dr. Barton, I said to myself, 'Lee, you are so judgmental: You color your hair, you wear double‑heavy support hose, but you haven't yet done plastic surgery!"
Lorie Hoffer was so impressed with her surgical results that she started proselytizing among the staff. Her colleague Karen Soderberg underwent breast augmentation and liposuction. "Oh, the one thing I added to my list of surgeries was a nose job," explains Soderberg, "and that was Lorie's idea. She said, 'Why don't you fix your nose while you're at it?"
"Karen had already complained to me about her nose," explains Hoffer.
San Antonio surgeon Wilkinson says he never takes an aide aside to point out flagrant physical "flaws" : "I don't put it that directly. But I do say, 'There are a lot of things you should consider.' I say, 'This ought to be on your list."
In many cases, the doctors aren't afraid to practice what they teach. Carol Adams, the administrator in the office of Washington, D.C., area plastic surgeon Harvey Austin, holds up her boss as an example: "Let's see ‑I know Harvey's had a face‑lift and a neck lift, and he's also had his upper and lower eyelids done and a tummy tuck and the corners of his mouth lifted." A pause. "I think that's all he's had." Austin got his surgery courtesy of his partner, George Weston.
Yet even when the drinks are free, not everyone wants to belly up to the bar. This past May, Melissa Garcia, a one‑time employee of the Florida Center for Plastic Surgery, sued her bosses, claiming the size of her natural bosom had ruined her career there. Breast augmentation was, she admitted, not far from her thoughts; indeed, she had once contemplated having the procedure at the center. "Then I chickened out," she says. Once she dismissed the idea of surgery on her breasts, she claims, her employers dismissed her.
San Antonio plastic surgeon Tolbert Wilkinson (center) with office manager Sandra Ruiz (left, lip enhancement and blepharoplasty) and surgical technician Dona Clontz (breast enlargement, lip enhancement, and an eyebrow lift).
"Isn't that amazing? " exclaims Garcia's lawyer, G. Ware Cornell Jr., who hasn't set a fixed price on the extent of his client's suffering and pain. "I can't think of anything, frankly, that goes more to the heart of gender‑based discrimination than 'Your boobs aren't big enough.' You just can't believe the attention it's getting."
As you might expect, Paul Refkin of the Florida Center for Plastic Surgery denies the charges. "The whole thing is ludicrous! Ridiculous!" the CEO cries before terminating our conversation. Then he agrees to allow a few delighted staffers to call back with anecdotes. For some reason, this never happens.
Melissa Garcia's case, though, is the exception. "We certainly have a choice about whether or not to get surgery," says Lorie Hoffer. "However, there is an added burden because everyone we know is looking at us."
Nonetheless, new office workers in search of new noses may find that good things come only to those who wait. It is customary to demand at least one year of labor before allowing an employee to benefit from discount surgery. And practically every top name in the field can recount the saga of some gorgeous new appendage floating out the office door forever (along with its owner) on that first anniversary. "To the day," sighs Barton. "And in both cases, they were young people who had breast augmentations."
As it happens, many first‑rate plastic surgeons prefer to hire older women. "It's our intelligence that makes us good employees," says Jane Jackson, a 53‑year‑old executive assistant to Barton. Then she gets to the heart of the matter: "And not only that: How many 20‑year‑olds have face‑lifts they can show off?"
"That's the whole point; the ladies can relate to me," agrees 76‑year‑old Shirley Singer, a Miami insurance clerk who received a peel and a face‑lift from her boss and who believes she has a vital role. "Doctors don't tell them all the little details," she says coolly.
"They all want to know if the operation hurts," says medical assistant Hastings. "I have to tell them the truth because it's immoral to lead someone astray. I say, 'It's like making a touchdown‑you're gonna get tackled! It'll be uncomfortable, but keep your eye on the goal.' See, in Texas everything is football‑related."
Of course, say the professionals who've seen it all, they themselves are bound to have a more profound experience undergoing plastic surgery than most people. For one thing, they know all the big players. For another, the top people in the field know them. This can produce some amazing results‑not all of them cosmetic.
"Oh, yeah, I picked Dr. Matarasso to do my liposuction‑I also picked his assistant. I picked my scrub nurse, my circulating nurse, and the anesthesiologist," says Randi Warren. "I just went through the hospital saying, 'I want you in the room, and you and you and you and you.'
"And while I was under anesthesia, everyone in the operating room was talking about this guy I was going with at the time and how he was totally wrong for me ‑he was another anesthesiologist, so everyone working on me knew him.
"And I woke up feeling totally different about this person. I had been with him for years. I didn't want to be with him anymore. It wasn't until a few days after post‑op when someone told me they'd all been gossiping about me that I realized why‑you can be very suggestible under anesthesia."