Over the last four years, I’ve done quite a few stories on breast implant illness (BII). I’m as surprised as you are to find that I’ve somehow become the breast implant specialist at Local 4. But as stories sometimes do, this one first arrived through a friend.
I can’t even remember how long I’ve known Tracy Gary. She’s been a staple on the Detroit airwaves including her time at Local 4. What you didn’t know was the suffering that was going on when the microphone and camera were off. Tracy had a long list of problems that didn’t seem to point in any one direction. It started with brain fog and confusion – never great when the “on air” light is lit. But then she started alternating between chills and sweats. Then it was lower back pain. Chronic fatigue. Hair loss. Doctors couldn’t find a culprit, though some told her it was menopause. Others pretty much told her it was all in her head.
It was indeed getting to her head. Depression set in, and on days when getting out of bed seemed too tall an order, she even considered suicide. (As we talked at her home that day, I looked out at the chilly water behind her home and thought when things are at their darkest, maybe it’s not good to live on a lake.) But this was life for Tracy for the better part of eight years, eight years of constantly living on the verge of a mental breakdown. Given the list of symptoms, why would anyone suggest it had anything to do with the breast implants she’d gotten back in 1998? But her desperate search for answers led her to a group of women who had created a small but growing online community. She began reading about women who had similarly wide-ranging problems but who had found relief by having their breast implants removed.
Nothing about it was simple, though. At the time, the medical world was entirely dismissive of “breast implant illness” (meaning don’t bother to expect insurance coverage for their removal). And even among those who thought implant removal was wise, there was a sharp divide over whether it was enough to simply remove the implants or if the entire capsule the body creates around an implant had to be removed as well. (That means a far more involved and complicated -and yes- more expensive procedure.) But Tracy became more and more convinced that it was BII that had plagued her life for so long and she became just as convinced that the full capsule removal was critical to her chances of recovery. Trying to find an affordable option led her to a doctor in Costa Rica who had developed a following for his fervent belief in the necessity of the full explant surgery.
It took no time at all for Tracy to show improvement, and soon she was repeating the line I would start to hear over and over again from others who had suffered from BII until they had their implants removed – she got her life back. Soon, she introduced me to a group of friends she had developed, all of whom had shared the BII experience, but all of whom now were dedicated to getting the medical community to accept breast implant illness as an accepted medical diagnosis. It was slow, but it started to happen. I remember talking to renowned Troy plastic surgeon, Dr. Anthony Youn, about his journey to understanding, but one that he still knew was being rejected by many of his peers. Well before the Food and Drug Administration demanded it, Dr. Youn started counseling breast implant patients about the potential for trouble, however rare.
And then I came to meet Dr. Amy DeRosa, the subject of Wednesday’s story. She, too, had been a skeptic of BII. But after seeing a particularly quick turnaround in one patient (the patient was already showing improvement in post-op), Dr. DeRosa began to see more and more cases, more and more long-suffering women who “got their lives back.” But in a twist, Dr. DeRosa started to recognize the list of symptoms in herself. She, too, had had implants, and while it hadn’t reached an acute stage, she was feeling the symptoms increasing in severity and decided to have her implants removed. She, too, felt the unmistakable improvement she had by now seen in so many others. (I should point out here that Dr. DeRosa is among those who believe the entire capsule must be removed. I’ve watched plenty of explant surgery video of the hardened, discolored capsules and they don’t look like anything you’d want making a home inside your body. If you care to view any of the footage, I don’t recommend it before dinner.)
There’s no getting around the profit that breast implants generate for many plastic surgeons. (The average cost of breast augmentation surgery runs around $4500.) It’s a fairly simple surgery that seldom has complications, and it is a procedure that pleases the overwhelming majority of patients who undergo it. The satisfaction rates typically run north of 90%.
And Amy DeRosa has decided she can no longer ethically have anything to do with it.
Last fall, the FDA finally gave in to the unrelenting pressure from women like Tracy Gary and required that implant patients be first advised about the possibility of BII. That’s not far enough for Dr. DeRosa. She is the rare plastic surgeon who will no longer do breast implant surgery. For her, it’s the only ethical option. Instead, she will continue to remove them.
Many former BII sufferers would like to see implants outlawed, but Dr. DeRosa doesn’t believe that’s the right way forward. Instead, she’s assembled a group of like-minded colleagues from all over the country. They would like to develop a screening test that potential implant patients could take as part of the pre-surgery consultation that would alert those women who might be more susceptible to BII. But the science isn’t quite ready. Until it is, this growing army of BII warriors will be trying to convince women that before deciding on a size or type of implant, there should be more thought about whether to have them at all.