NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Plastic surgery. There's an aura around it, for better and for worse: cosmetic surgery can seem like the purview of the rich, the luxurious, the vain, those who don't have better things to do with their money.
Bucking nearly every one of those stereotypes are Laura and her son, Vincent.* Laura is a middle-aged single mother living off of disability payments due to her crippling diabetes; she has vision problems because of hemorrhaging behind her eyes, and her legs are so swollen she has to go to a wound center for ulcers that leave both legs bandaged. Her disability payments are generally just enough to cover her living expenses.
Vincent, meanwhile, is a 25-year-old construction worker down on the Jersey Shore. He aspires to go to college someday and currently makes a relatively small paycheck.
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Despite the fact that neither Laura nor Vincent has a great deal of money, they saved up together for two years to fund Vincent's cosmetic surgery. Laura instituted a moratorium on shopping, and Vincent sold the new car he'd purchased. Two years later, after many hard months of sacrifice, they say it's the best money they've ever spent.
When Vincent was a teenager, he developed lumps under his breasts. He was living with his father at the time, who told him not to worry because they'd probably go away as part of puberty. All the same, Vincent was extremely self-conscious, because his chest looked almost like that of a female. His friends teased him, and he started censoring his activities to avoid drawing attention to his chest, from refusing to go to the beach to nixing white tank tops altogether.
At age 23, Vincent moved in with his mother, and she immediately saw something was amiss. By the time he moved back in with Laura, Vincent had almost no self-esteem. "The more they made fun of him, the more down his head went," Laura recalls.
She took him to a specialist, and finally they learned that Vincent was suffering from gynecomastia, which occurs when there's excess gland tissue in the male breast. That's what differentiates men with gynecomastia from those who have extra fat due to obesity. Vincent's enlarged breasts weren't medically harmful, but they were a source of psychological distress.
"My son grew up with all these people making fun of him because of his breasts," Laura says. "It would be incredibly hot outside, but when he went to work at his construction job, he would wear a black tank top under a black t-shirt so no one would notice his chest. That meant doing construction in the blazing heat of the Jersey Shore, and it's hotter than hell. One day it was unbearable and he didn't think before he ripped his shirt off. The heat made his gynecomastia swell even more, and the other construction guys started making serious fun of him. He felt so devastated he put the shirt back on." From then on, the men at work would poke at Vincent and pinch his nipples. Though they ostensibly did this in jest, Vincent was humiliated.
That day in the sun inspired Vincent to embark on serious research. He found that the only real way to get rid of his gynecomastia was through surgery to remove the excess mammary gland. Gynecomastia surgery often costs around $3,000 or $4,000, but Vincent kept seeing one specialist's name pop up again and again--Dr. Mordcai Blau, who performed around 400 gynecomastia surgeries per year (many other plastic surgeons perform just a handful). All the same, there were a few obstacles. First, Perhaps most notably, Dr. Blau charged higher rates than other surgeons; Vincent's surgery would cost about $7,200. But after searching through alternate options, Vincent decided to save up for Dr. Blau: if he was going to do this, he wanted to do it right.
Laura agreed that the surgery was worth the cost. "Vincent has told me so many times that this is emasculating, makes him feel like less of a man," she said. "And what hurts me, makes me cry, is that people would be so mean to my son. I didn't care what it took, even if I had to give him my life's savings, which eventually I did. I don't care if I'm poor. The greatest thing of all is that my son is healthy and happy."
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Laura already had some savings and dedicated all of her money to her son's cause. Vincent told his father about the surgery but his dad didn't offer to pitch in, so Laura picked up the mantle: "I knew he didn't have the money, so we saved together. I saved every dime to my name ... This is my only child, he needed it deeply, and I saw how much this held him back from becoming the man he is. It hurt me deeply that he didn't feel comfortable in his own body. That's the most important thing aside from the lumps being cancerous, God forbid."
"I would have robbed a bank to get him that money," Laura says. "Well, not literally." She admits that she enjoys shopping and likes going out to eat, but for two years, she didn't do any of those things. "My son worked very, very hard," she said. "However he had to cut corners, he did." Vincent sold his new car so he could use the money for the surgery, and, Laura says, the two of them struggled to sock away every spare penny. In the end, Laura lent Vincent about $3,500, roughly half the amount for the surgery.
"It was a very large sacrifice for both of us to save so much, but now that it's over, it was so incredibly worth it," Laura says. The surgery itself went off without any complications. "I see a wonderful change in Vinny--more confidence," Laura says. "He's more secure with himself ... It's something we will always keep as part of our life." Aside from short-term swelling, Vincent already saw a huge change in his chest the day of the surgery. As his chest has started to heal, his entire outlook has changed and he feels like he has reclaimed his life.
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It's been just over a month since the surgery, and Vincent has already started to add light-colored tank tops to his previously all-black wardrobe. That may sound like no big deal, but it's one small sign of the massive psychological shift he's experiencing. "He says, 'Look, Ma, I have a white t-shirt on!'" Laura says. "It's a big deal for my kid. It's a great deal for me. I'm so happy ... It was a miracle." Laura considers the money on surgery well spent.
On Vincent's first day back at the construction job, the foreman tried to poke fun at him by saying, "So, Vinny, how are your breasts doing?" "To be honest," Vincent said, recalling the incident, "I just laughed at him, looked him straight in the eye, and said, 'They're doing great.'"
*Because of the sensitive nature of this story, both names have been changed.
--Written for MainStreet by Allison Kade, who is currently collaborating with Dr. Mordcai Blau on a book about gynecomastia.