Mirror: The Human Journey of My Surgery as a Trans Man

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Color photography by Char Pratt.

“From every wound there is a scar, and every scar tells a story. A story that says, ‘I survived.’”
- Unknown


The whole week seemed a lot more picturesque before it happened.

I had envisioned our meeting would be captured on camera as a teary façade for all of YouTube to fawn over. Instead, my shaking hands must have hit record twice – possibly four – times as I stumbled around the airport, frantically searching for a face I hadn’t seen in four years.

As I stood at the Fort Lauderdale airport on the two-year anniversary since I had started testosterone injections, I was sincerely afraid that my own mother might not recognize me.

It was the day before my approaching surgery, and my mother would be meeting her son for the first time.

At this point I should really back up for a moment and point out that any sort of sex reassignment surgery isn’t necessary, nor is it for everyone. If I chose not to get surgery, I would still be Brendon. However, self-doubt had rocked me from the chest down since puberty, and once I found out top surgery (the masculinization of my chest area) was an option, it became the only option.

After living a barebones lifestyle for over a year, I had finally saved enough to pay for my surgery.

Like many, my insurance wouldn’t cover this surgery.  To say I’m one of the lucky ones for making it this far is putting it lightly, as the self-harm statistics against trans people who are held back from transitioning are nothing short of horrific. I have nothing to thank but chance itself in many regards that I somehow had the strength to continue.

Yet in this moment, all I could think about was introducing myself as Brendon for the first time to my own mother, who had made the expensive journey from North Dakota to be my personal caretaker during my first week of recovery.

I’m grateful that I had my mother’s full support after I came out and that she too managed to save up enough for her first trip to our sunny shores. However, the Broward transgender community is also fortunate to have the incredible New Beginnings Retreat, which is a recovery center specifically run for post-operative transgender patients in recovery.

Had a snowstorm struck the Midwest and cancelled all seven flights out of Fargo, I would have had to make a last minute arrangement with the loving team at New Beginnings, and I was thankful to still have that option in case my mother became permanently lost in the tides of people at Terminal C.

Thankfully, luck was on my side.

By the time I found her, we managed to take one or two selfies focused blurrily at the ceiling before I began to rush her eagerly to my car.

There was no doubt she was glad to see me, but both of us were too overwhelmed to show it much. We still had to stop for groceries that would have to last us a week before we could check in with our Airbnb hostess.

Everything was a blur.

Somehow despite all the chaos, my mother had not only made it to Florida, but we both somehow made it to my appointment at noon the next morning.

Like mother, like son.

 

“I’m off to see the Wizard.”

It had all started with a free consultation at Take Shape Plastic Surgery.

Dr. Russell Sassani, certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgeons, graduated with Highest Honors at Rutgers University, where he began his specialized training in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

As an open member of the gay community himself and an advocate for transgender rights, Dr. Sassani was the recipient of the Trans Equality Award in 2014, presented by the Pride Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The award sits in a glass case in his waiting room, where all his patients are welcome to view it.

Just recently, Dr. Sassani welcomed Jazz Jennings for a consultation at his practice, a moment that was filmed for Jennings’ popular television show on TLC. On it, he stated that about a third of his patients now consisted of transgender patients in search of greater authenticity.

By the time my mother and I arrived, we were long past that original consultation phase. I had already talked with Dr. Sassani about my options, paid a grueling sum that was the result of my life being on hold for a year, and successfully weaned myself off of nicotine.

All that was left was the surgery itself.

Rather than enjoy the comfort of the waiting room with its glistening awards like I had in my previous consultations, my mother and I were taken through a well-protected back door the moment I arrived.

Inside the surgery center, we were greeted by a gleeful Wizard of Oz theme. All the nervousness that had been carving itself prematurely through my chest was washed away.

For a brief moment, it felt more like a trip to a spa than to a surgeon’s office.

The Nurse Manager Tammy was nothing short of a delight, making sure that my mother and I had a few genuine laughs and selfies. Dr. Sassani sat with me himself as I described my ideal end results and he carefully traced the incisions on my chest to suit my ideal aesthetic, something that not all surgeons are willing to do. I was given one last consent form to sign, which I scribbled on as if it were the iTunes Terms and Conditions.

Before I knew it, I was being guided towards a door in my white button-up with an I.V. dangling sharply from one wrist.

Next to the entrance was a little sign that caught my eye moments before the surgery table itself was revealed through the open doorway.

“I’m off to see the Wizard.”

 

The first ever (properly focused) photo that my mom, Jennifer Lies, and I took together as mother and son.

 

“This surgery isn’t going to make you a man.”

Going back several months before my surgery, my mother had a fine piece of advice for me during one of our many long phone calls.

“This surgery isn’t going to make you a man.”

It would have been easy to mistake that as transphobia, but I know my mother, and she knows me.

“I know… I’m already a man,” I had replied sharply. “I’m doing this to feel more comfortable with myself, but it doesn’t change anything.”

That was exactly the answer she had been looking for.

Nonetheless, as I finally lay there after the surgery while slowly allowing the anesthesia to release its foggy grip, I was still surprised by how little I felt had changed.

The only real difference at that moment was a vague feeling of helplessness settling in. Up until this day, I had worn a binder to manually flatten my chest, which in itself was terribly uncomfortable. The only thing that felt different was a pair of drainage tubes now lodged into the flesh of my arms, woven securely through a compression top that would help keep my bandages firm.

The surgery itself had gone wonderfully, Dr. Sassani comforted.

Deep in the comfort of a very expensive nap, I had undergone a double incision – a bilateral masectomy with trimmed nipples and areolas grafted onto a more masculine location. Two temporary drainage tubes were woven through my chest, which would need my mother’s somewhat-careful touch to monitor.

In some ways I had finally made it, but the finish line was still a long way off.

At the time, I attributed my lack of utter euphoria to the drugs left in my system. Still, the knowledge of this checkpoint in my life was enough to usher me onto my feet and even say a few sweet compliments to the nurses which I know my mother disapproved of.

That part I’ll always blame on the anesthesia.

 

Hours after surgery.

 

I felt my first glimpse of real fear.

While I hardly remember the first few hours once we arrived back at our cozy air bnb studio, I was soon bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with restlessness that lasted for the first few days. Never in my bright mind did I think the adrenaline that had gotten me this far in life might be betraying my own healing process.

This was my mistake.

That weekend, less than 40 hours after surgery, I had a sudden increase in bleeding. To top it off, the moment I sat up from a nap and noticed deep red drains, my head began to spin and I could barely move.

Within minutes, my mother was on her phone, frantically explaining the situation to Dr. Sassani who was currently tucked in the comfort of his home. The doctor’s orders were to get me to his office, where he would meet us as soon as possible. My mother was reassured that I would be fine, and that the worst case scenario would only involve me going back into surgery until they stopped the bleeding.

I had the entire Uber ride to bite back nausea and think about my life up to this point. Everything felt immobile, and my thoughts felt less clear.

For possibly the first time in my young life, I felt my first glimpse of real fear.

However, unlike so many incredible souls before me who had suffered far worse fates, there was no regret. As I stared at the nauseating sight of cars zipping by, I didn’t for a moment wish my life were any different.

This surgery was the birth of two scars, but the healing of many others.

I let this thought sink into my mind as Dr. Sassani and the Nurse Assistant Rosie led us inside through the Surgery Center, which was normally inoperative during weekends. I’m grateful to say that despite the potential urgency of the situation, everyone was incredibly calm and patient with my frightened mother, which for once I couldn’t be.

In order to check the bleeding, the doctor opted to remove all bandages much earlier than usual, only to reveal good news… all was well, it was just a false alarm. Likely a result of me overstraining myself. In fact, I was told my healing up to this point looked miraculous.

I did, however, receive a firm wave of a finger from Dr. Sassani.

Moments before I was about to be rebandaged, Rosie was kind enough to break tradition of the full-mirror reveal and give me a small glimpse of my chest in a hand mirror so I could see for myself that all was well. Usually, the grand reveal is like a ceremony; the patient is slowly undressed after a full week of healing, and as the bandages come off for the first time, they turn to face a mirror and stare at their own reflection for the first time.

For me, though, this tiny glimpse was proof that it was over, as though I was afraid the bandages would come off and I would be stuck with the same awkward lumps.

In that tiny smudged reflection, I could see I was beautiful.

I was me.

For the rest of the week, I treated my recovery with new light. No longer did I pace back and forth recklessly, cleaning up the hotel room or even trying to cook. I finally allowed my mother to watch over me, which still proved to be much different and even a bit more frustrating than I remembered from the days before I left for college.

Yet somehow, we made it.

After a very quiet but anxious week, it was almost time for my proper reveal.

In the two years since I had come out, I had met countless trans people like myself, and many of them had shared their own journeys with me. What I learned is that everyone who opts for surgery reacts differently for their own reason.  I witnessed several friends grieve with tears of loss after spending years trying to normalize their bodies, while I had seen others spare not an ounce of joy.

Keeping this in mind, I had spent the rest of the week telling myself that, whether or not my chest would look nearly as good as the foggy glimpse I had gotten did, I wouldn’t force myself to feel joy. That, if some piece of myself felt like it was missing simply from years of its awkward presence, I wouldn’t stop myself from mourning or even feeling anger.

This reveal would be about my own authenticity, nothing else.

The removal of the bandages was much more complicated the second time, as it also involved removing the drains – easily the most painful moment of my entire recovery, although this is different for everyone. The stitches also had to come out, so at one point I had a nurse on each side with Dr. Sassani himself standing over my face, all of whom were thirty meters too close to me considering I hadn’t been allowed to shower properly for a full week.

Once the last stitch was snaked away from my chest (or it might have been a very thick hair, I’ll never really know), I was guided towards the mirror even as the room filled with staff members from throughout the building who were eager to see my face light up.

As I stepped in front of the mirror, I sure smiled. But I kept my promise, and allowed myself a few moments to pinpont what I really felt inside.

It took several breaths for it to sink in… relief.

There was a literal burden that had been lifted from my chest.

 

I’m worth more than the scars that run skin deep.

It’s been almost five months. No longer do I have to contort into a pressurized vest every morning in a crude and often painful attempt to flatten my chest, nor do I have to hesitate when other men around me begin to whip their shirts off. Sure, I definitely haven’t earned a six-pack, and even now I could use a few healthy days in the sun to gain some color.

And sure, if you catch me shirtless while walking my dog along the sidewalk in a quiet little neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, you’ll notice two scars that will take several more years before they begin to fade away.

But I’m worth more than the scars that run skin deep.


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