Bad Plastic Surgery Complications and Realities

Is bad plastic surgery akin to pornography in that we can’t necessarily define it, but we know it when we see it?

We’ve all seen the pictures of celebrities who have taken the “pursuit of perfection” a step or two too far. We’ve watched as everyday people have become celebrities for no other reason than their outrageous plastic surgery exploits. We’ve read the news stories about those who have given their lives in exchange for a chance at a more svelte physique. Chances are that you may even know someone (or know someone who knows someone) who has lived a plastic surgery nightmare.

Obviously, when a life is lost, something has gone horribly wrong. When the tip of a patient’s new nose turns black and falls off, something has gone horribly wrong. When a patient is left with permanent, debilitating pain or paralysis, something has gone horribly wrong. But what about the sheer aesthetics of it all? Beauty is subjective. So what sets apart “different strokes for different folks” from plastic surgery that has truly gone wrong?

MRSA infection after tummy tuck
JodiJacobson / Getty Images

In the Eye of the Beholder

While we may look at an over-tightened facelift and think it’s strange and even a bit tragic, the person with that wind-swept face may feel 20 years younger. And while many ethical plastic surgeons will turn away a patient who is asking for something that the surgeon feels is not in his or her best interest, there will always be another surgeon who will do it.

Who’s to say, after all, how smooth is too smooth, and how tight is too tight? Of course, you’ve heard the saying, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Should the saying be extended to include too smooth, too tight, too firm, and too busty?

More Than Skin-Deep

While bad aesthetic outcomes are certainly a great concern, there are larger issues at stake as well. Common complications following plastic surgery include infection, necrosis, wound separation, fluid collections or abscesses, and blood clots. When recognized right away, many of these problems can be successfully treated. However, these and other problems can also become much more serious.

When plastic surgery goes really wrong, the result can be permanent pain, disfigurement due to severe scarring or asymmetry, paralysis, or even death. It’s a sad fact that people do lose their lives every day as a result of something going wrong during or after surgery, and plastic surgery is no exception.

However, it is helpful to understand that death rates in plastic surgery are relatively low compared to death rates in surgery overall. This is due in large part to the fact that plastic surgery is elective and most surgeons will refuse to operate on a patient they feel is a poor (high-risk) candidate. Nonetheless, the worst-case scenario does happen.

Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong: One Patient's Story

Take the case of 38-year-old Philadelphia wife and mother, Tracey Jordan. In February of 2007, Jordan went in for a tummy tuck, liposuction, and breast reduction on the advice of her doctor (to help relieve her chronic back pain). The surgery seemed to go well, but she collapsed in recovery and was unable to be revived. It was later discovered that a highly toxic drug called bupivacaine was mistakenly administered instead of the lidocaine that had been ordered by her surgeon. The two drugs come in strikingly similar packaging, though Bupivacaine is not approved for use in tumescent liposuction and is 10 times more toxic than lidocaine.​

The Truth About “Non-Invasive” Procedures

Regardless of marketing hype, serious (even life-threatening) complications are not limited to actual surgical procedures. Cosmetic treatments touted as minimally invasive or even non-invasive can go wrong as well.

Take the case of 50-year-old Susan Brewer, who signed up for a series of Lipodissolve treatments, given by her family practitioner, who had taken a weekend certification course to be able to offer the Lipodissolve treatments. After two treatment sessions, she developed two hematomas which later blistered and broke open. One of these now open wounds became infected, quickly devolving into a gaping hole in her abdomen that was one inch deep and three and a half inches in diameter. Susan suffered from nausea and fever for three days but was successfully treated for the infection. Since then, she has had to see a plastic surgeon to cut out the dead tissue and close the wound. She is now left with a large scar on what was supposed to be her new slimmer, tauter abdomen.

Common Complication or Botch Job?

Besides the subjective nature of beauty, there are other things to consider before labeling a surgical procedure as “botched.” An unsatisfactory result does not necessarily mean that your surgeon did anything wrong. For instance, let's look at a common complication like capsular contracture after breast augmentation. While it can be painful and is certainly not the ideal aesthetic result, it is not a result of bad surgical technique or any problem occurring during surgery. It happens as a result of the body’s own natural defenses against foreign bodies (in this case, the implants).

The same can be said of patients who develop excessive scarring. Sometimes this can be a result of poor technique. However, sometimes it is just a result of the way that particular person’s body responds to injury (i.e., the surgical incision). In addition, the patient must take some responsibility for minimizing scarring by following the surgeon’s instructions regarding his or her post-op wound care.

Don’t Become a Statistic

If you don’t want to become a bad plastic surgery statistic, patient education is key. You can greatly minimize your risk by doing your homework and taking responsibility for your own care. Learn more by checking out the links below.

1 Source
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  1. Khunger N. Complications in Cosmetic Surgery: A Time to Reflect and Review and not Sweep Them Under the Carpet. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2015;8(4):189-90. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.172188

Additional Reading
  • Interview with Jeffrey Killino, Esq. (attorney for the family of Tracey Jordan), Philadelphia, PA; conducted on 7/31/08
  • Interview with Matthew Schulman, MD, New York, NY; conducted on 7/31/08
  • Interview with Susan Brewer, Flowery Branch, GA; conducted on 8/6/08