My gory career as a plastic-surgery nurse.

Health and medicine explained.
April 4 2006 5:30 PM


My gory career as a plastic-surgery nurse.

Download an MP3 audio interview with the author here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I was lying around in the living room on a recent Monday night, watching TV while my wife, Susan, packed for a weeklong getaway with a girlfriend. I wasn't completely tuned in to her, but the snippets coming through left no doubt: This was not your typical spa-and-shopping excursion.

"Let's see," she said cheerfully. "Soups. Music. Movies. Various teas. Paper towels. Simple Green—"


"What do you need cleanser for?" I interrupted.

"In case we bleed on the furniture."

Silly me for asking. Susan was preparing for a female bonding ritual that I call "mummysitting," which refers to the selfless act of nursing a gal pal when she's recovering from cosmetic surgery. She'd done it once before—a few years ago she helped a buddy who got her lips puffed up, brows lifted, and nose adjusted. But this was to be a bigger, more complicated sit, ripe with potential dramas.

For one thing, Susan was accompanying her friend Anna Holm (to protect this woman's privacy, I've changed her name, in homage to the feisty Joan Crawford character in 1941's plastic-surgery chiller A Woman's Face). Anna was having five procedures done at once, from neck to forehead. That's a lot. Even as a layman, I knew that anybody getting worked that hard would come out looking like a temporary cross between Kukla and Mutant Leader from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The other twist: My wife was scheduled to get a nose job herself, two days after Anna's Tuesday-morning surgery. So they needed a second mummysitter, and Susan volunteered you-know-who, providing me with a rare chance to observe this Percocet-fueled pajama party up close. Susan would mummysit Anna the first couple of days. Then, on Wednesday, the night before Susan's schnoz flaying, I would drive from our home to a twin-bedroom hotel suite in a nearby city, where I would help both women by cooking sick-people food, running errands, and replacing "used" gauze.

Strangely, none of this sounded unpleasant. The challenge would call on years of otherwise useless skills I'd racked up—from a tolerance for ooze developed during my career as a boy taxidermist to my unmatched talent for boiling water, opening yogurt, and making toast.

Besides, I needed a break from work, and I was taking along plenty of alcohol. How bad could it be?

As women sometimes do, Susan and Anna assembled a mountain of supplies for the week. Useful: soups, milk, enough bottled water to fill a kiddie pool, assorted comfy blankets and cushions. Surprisingly useless: The complete Sex and the City box set, which mostly went unwatched because both patients were usually zonked.

But all was not peace and snoozing. Even before my arrival, there was a mummysit Amber alert: On Monday night, Anna got cold feet, waking Susan a couple of times to talk about canceling. Anna ended up keeping the appointment, and the surgeon did his thing for five long hours. The details Susan relayed were whispered, but she hinted at intense levels of pre- and post-op nervousness and extra sedation.

By the time I made the scene on Wednesday night, Anna had already gone back in for her unveiling—that terrifying moment when the protective mummywrap comes off and patients get full exposure to their bruised and bloodied selves. Word was she got very upset. Now, as I warily unpacked, I heard Anna from the kitchen area asking Susan, "Do you think he's ready to see the monster?"

Anna came out, and, no, she didn't look as good as usual: Both eyes were puffy shiners; her eyes, ears, and hairline were stitched; and she was swollen all over. Still, as I gazed at her face with my trained taxidermist's eye for curve and sweep, I could already see the basic outlines of youthfulness restored, so I knew she'd feel better soon if she could just stop staring at the mirror.

But she couldn't. The next morning, while I stood in the kitchen trying to peel soft-boiled eggs without driving a thumb into the yolk, she asked me to examine a red, painful-looking slit where her right earlobe had come loose. What else could I do? I leaned in, squinted, clucked sympathetically, and said, "Dang!"

I like Anna and felt protective toward her. She's in her 40s, romantically unattached at the moment, and, like most people, she wants to remain attractive. And I could imagine how mummysitting might make you feel when you're one of the mummies: uneasy. As Anna described it to me weeks later—when her face had healed up but she still didn't like what she saw—she was "mourning" not just her old mug but a hypothetical new look that she'd visualized but didn't get. Instead, she was stuck with a face that was strange and somehow wrong, like a mask she wanted to remove. That can't be a happy outcome.

As for Susan's proboscis, I had mixed emotions about its resculpting. I suppose her God-given model stuck out a little (her diagnosis), and she had a valid health reason for getting it worked on—a deviated septum. So I was on the team. Still, as we sat in the waiting room on Thursday morning, I felt moved to make a speech.

 "I have always been a fan of your work," I told her nose, kissing it goodbye. "But I look forward to meeting the deluxe 2006 edition."

The hourlong surgery went fine, and Susan came out with a woozy head and Geraldo-style beak bandages. Back at the room, we settled into a lazy routine involving sleep, vintage movies, and mildly gross mummysit maintenance. Neither patient was allowed to blow out the awful blood-and-mucus crusts that formed in her nose, so breathing was a chore. Mummysittees also have to stay upright when they're in bed, get icepacked 20 minutes on the hour, and deal with icky fluid seeps that get sopped up by under-the-nose gauze dams.

Anna took care of herself and my duties for Susan were relatively simple, so I slept as much as she did. Anna left on Saturday, and that morning Susan and I realized that the mummysit had turned into an oddly memorable second honeymoon. Yeah, she had a bad moment or two herself: The bandaging tugged her nostrils upward, creating an oinky appearance that caused her to declare, "I look like one of the pig people in that Twilight Zone episode!" Overall, though, she was quite a trouper, and it was a pleasure taking care of my sweetie in a medical situation with a happy ending.

When we went back to see her doctor a week later to get her bandages removed, it was really fun to see the results. The new nose, though swollen, looked great. But what I really enjoyed was the happy new smile underneath it.

Alex Heard is the editorial director ofOutsidemagazine.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 4:03 PM You’re Doing It Wrong: Puttanesca Sauce
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.