When elective plastic surgery goes wrong: From facelifts to sexual reassignment surgery

It happens more often than we might think: Complications from surgery leave patients worse off than they were before they had it.

In the majority of such cases, there were few or no options to the surgery, and the risks were acceptable. It was do or die.

But when life-altering complications arise after elective plastic surgery, patients are often left with a sense of regret along with grief and misery — assuming they survived.

Consider the extreme case of comedienne Joan Rivers, who died from complications during what seemed like a routine facelift. It was elective surgery that she felt she had to have. But if she had not had it — and was willing to live with something less than a flawless face — she might still be entertaining us with her special brand of humour.

The Internet is full of photos and stories about facelifts gone wrong. Not so common are the stories of other plastic surgery procedures that have left patients worse off than they were before, such as sexual reassignment surgery. There has been “a boom in demand,” writes Dawn Ennis in a piece on the GoMag site with the headline “This Is So Hard”: Coping with Complications from Gender Affirmation Surgery.

It’s a subject that hasn’t been getting a lot of ink in the mainstream media — yet. But you will probably be hearing more about it now.

Says Dawn Ennis — a veteran U.S. mainstream journalist and former ABC News producer (and a personal friend) — in a Facebook post about her article:

I didn’t write this to scare anyone, but to shine a light on something so few people talk about. Surgery, no matter what kind, is always difficult, and gender affirmation surgery is no exception. The odds aren’t known, but because of shame and a desire to paint a positive picture, these stories are generally only told in hushed tones. What I wondered was what happens to the people who are on the losing end of the statistic? This is the answer to that question.

Personally, I know many who have had this particular surgery, both MtF (male-to-female) and FtM (female-to-male) people, and the vast majority have had some complications afterward, some very serious to the point of ruining their lives.

But just as many people flock to plastic surgeons for facelifts, dismissing possible complications, trans people around the world are gambling with sexual reassignment surgery because they feel they absolutely must have it and the risk is worth it. Even those who suffer afterward with post-op complications are reluctant to say they regret having the surgery, Dawn writes.

I do know of cases, though, in which trans people have expressed serious regret, saying they wouldn’t have had the surgery if they had known it would leave them with physical disabilities and, in two particular cases, with job loss and institutionalization in a mental health facility.

Canada has taken steps to make it easier for transgender people: in most (if not all) jurisdictions, trans people can change their gender identity from the one given at birth along with their names by simply filling out some forms. Sexual reassignment surgery is no longer a prerogative.

This all came about after lobbyists and members of the trans community pointed out that people shouldn’t have “to mutilate” their bodies, that gender identity should be enough to be accepted in society.

But many trans people still want to have the surgery, and to take the risks.

Before you comment here on my post, please have a read of Dawn’s piece.

— Jillian

(This piece was first posted on my blog at jillianpage.com)

Photo: Image from page 511 of “A reference handbook of the medical sciences, embracing the entire range of scientific and practical medicine and allied science” (1913) Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions


2 thoughts on “When elective plastic surgery goes wrong: From facelifts to sexual reassignment surgery”

  1. There are risks with any surgery, and for any person, nothing is guaranteed. What I see happening all too often with gender surgery is that some trans people, in their hurry to transition, decide to go with the cheapest option available instead of someone who is well known, well experienced, but costs more. Then they wonder what went wrong.

    There is a reason a doctor costs more, and almost always it is because said doctor knows what they are doing. Are their cheaper options available ? Yes, but with that also comes increased risk.

    I spent a little more on my gender surgery and went to a well known doctor in Montreal. It was one of the best experiences of my life.


    1. Agreed.

      But even the top doctors cannot guarantee patients are free from risk of post-op complications. Which is why they make people sign forms stating they understand the risks.

      One would hope that a good surgeon will not cause fistulas, for example, but those doctors cannot guarantee that a vaginal prolapse won’t happen shortly afterward. I know of one individual that happened to, and she had an excellent surgeon. It was simply bad luck, and she really regrets having the surgery now.

      It’s even more risky for FtMs.


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