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Millions of Americans get poked, prodded -- and cut open -- all in the name of beauty. But last week's death of novelist Olivia Goldsmith from complications during plastic surgery provides a sharp reminder that surgery, any surgery, is inherently risky.
Goldsmith, 54, best known as the author of 1992's The First Wives Club, had a heart attack while she was under anesthesia for surgery in New York to remove loose skin under her chin, according to media reports. She fell into a coma and died a day later, according to reports, but the cause of death is under investigation, and ''we're not confirming any details of her tragic death,'' says Ken Sunshine, spokesman for Goldsmith's estate.
Plastic surgery, like most surgeries, is relatively safe. Anesthesia-related deaths in the USA occur in 1 in 250,000 procedures, says the American Society of Anesthesiologists. But Goldsmith's death is a reminder that ''plastic surgery isn't a pure benefit,'' says Nancy Etcoff, psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Survival of the Prettiest. ''It isn't someone waving a magic wand and you look better. You're subjecting yourself to potential dangers.''
People make the mistake of thinking it's ''like TV, that you go get a face lift and in an hour you're fine,'' says Rod Rohrich, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. ''It is real surgery to be done by real surgeons in a real operating room. With that is the potential for inherent real risks.''
Cosmetic procedures by plastic surgeons have increased 195% since 1992, and about 6.6 million Americans had procedures in 2002, according to the plastic surgeons society. Risks range from ugly scarring and illness to death.
Diane Sanders, a commercial property manager from Dallas, says she understood the risks when she had facial plastic surgery three years ago. But that didn't stop her. Goldsmith's death ''is a one-in-a-million type thing,'' says Sanders, 56. ''You can't go through life just hiding behind everything. You've got to think, 'Well, that was an accident. It's not going to happen to me.' ''
In 2000, 2,100 people died from complications and adverse reactions among more than 70 million surgeries, the National Center for Health Statistics says.
Even a small risk should be considered carefully, doctors say.
''You have to ask yourself, 'How important is it for me to have my face lifted?' '' says Roger Litwiller, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. ''If it's very important, then you do everything you can to minimize that risk.'' That includes checking a physician's qualifications and making sure surgical facilities can handle emergencies.
In a youth-driven culture, it's easy to understand why people take the risk, Etcoff says.
The surgery provides people ''a whole new freedom . . . to look any way they want,'' Etcoff says. ''It used to be people would go into hairdressers and say, 'I want Meg Ryan's hairdo.' Now it's 'I want her nose, her chin.' ''
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