A week after her tummy tuck last June, a Rockville mother of two was on Zoom for her company’s annual meeting. Susan (not her real name) was still on pain medications and couldn’t stand upright, but she felt well enough to turn on her camera and participate. “Luckily, we were looking at hundreds of spreadsheets and there were 30 of us, so no big screens,” she says. No one from her office knew she was lying in bed in her pajamas. “That whole week was a black hole.”
Susan, 41, had been planning to have a tummy tuck long before the pandemic arrived. She started interviewing surgeons in January 2020, two months before the county’s temporary ban on elective procedures. When her office went remote, she used the time to set up a second round of consultations—this time virtually. She wanted to have surgery as soon as restrictions were lifted because working from home would allow for a more discreet recovery. But with all the unknowns surrounding COVID-19, and the curve of cases not yet flattening, she and her husband wanted to know if doctors thought it was safe.
“If it was your wife who wanted the surgery,” she asked Rockville plastic surgeon Adam Tattelbaum, “what would you tell her to do?” The doctor said he’d probably tell his wife to wait six months and see what happens with the pandemic. “I appreciated his honesty,” Susan says. But the timing worked so well for her that she ignored his advice and scheduled the surgery as soon as his office started booking again.
“Pre-COVID, I’d have taken a week or two off work, then my husband would have had to drive me to and from my office, like 35 minutes away,” Susan says. Plus, “I was walking funny for at least a month and I had to wear this binder—this corset—under my clothes. It would have been hard to figure out what to wear that didn’t make it obvious.”
At the start of the stay-at-home order, Tattelbaum, 58, worried that his practice might not survive. He knew the county’s ban would eventually be lifted, but says, “I kept thinking, ‘Who is going to want to have [plastic] surgery in the middle of a pandemic?’ ” When he reopened in May 2020 and his calendar started to fill up again, he assumed it was mostly the backlog of patients who had to be rescheduled. But then, “people just kept booking and booking,” he says. “Everyone kept saying, ‘I know there’s COVID out there, but this is a really good time for me to get surgery.’ ”
For two decades, the most common thing patients asked him was, “How long before I can be back at work?” Now, he says, the number one question is: “How long until I can be on my computer?”
Dr. Jennifer Parker Porter, owner of Chevy Chase Facial Plastic Surgery, says the word Zoom now comes up in 80% of her patient consultations. She’s heard from so many people fretting about how they look on the computer screen that she’s started to give advice about camera angles and lighting. Elevate your screens so you aren’t looking down, she recommends, and lean your body forward so your neck is stretched a bit. “There are things they can do to optimize,” she says.
Since the pandemic, Porter, 56, has been doing all her initial consults virtually. She’s getting twice as many inquiries as she did before COVID, and far fewer no-shows and last-minute cancellations. Normally, about 95% of her patients are women, but more men have been reaching out, too—saying that when they see themselves on video calls they look tired or their noses look big. “Noses always look bigger on camera,” Porter says.
In early 2020, she’d signed on to have another surgeon join her practice. When he started in July, she worried there wouldn’t be enough business to keep them both busy. Now their schedules are booked three months out, and she’s added an extra day a week for surgeries to meet demand. As in pre-pandemic days, a lot of patients are asking for nose jobs, called rhinoplasties, and face-lifts, but Porter is seeing an uptick in requests by men and women for eyelid surgery, known as blepharoplasty. “It’s all about the eye,” she says, “because that’s all anyone sees now if you are out and about and wearing a mask.”
Tattelbaum says he believes the boom in cosmetic procedures is more about patients having time to recover. “I do a great deal of tummy tucks and, boy, have we seen a lot of them in the past few months,” he says. “I think most people who come in for plastic surgery have been thinking about it for years.”
Rockville plastic surgeon Joseph Michaels says the biggest spike he’s seeing is among patients in their 30s through 50s, including a lot of federal workers and teachers. “It’s not just [their own] schedule that they’re considering,” he says. “These days, both husbands and wives are more likely to be working from home, so there’s someone around to help during their recovery.”
Michaels, 48, performs a lot of body-focused surgeries, like skin tightening after weight loss. He’s seen fewer older patients coming to the office—either for major surgeries or nonsurgical procedures like neck-tightening treatments and Botox—and thinks many people over 60 “feel more at risk being in public.” But among middle-aged patients, he’s seen a rise in everything. “I’m hearing a lot of complaints about the neck,” he says.
With social distancing guidelines requiring doctors to limit the number of patients and staff in their facilities, many local cosmetic surgeons have added early morning, evening and Saturday shifts to their schedules. Since last spring, Tattelbaum is only going into the office for consults one day a week so he doesn’t overlap with other doctors. Michaels isn’t performing any procedure—surgical or otherwise—that requires patients to remove their masks unless they’ve had a COVID test 72 hours in advance. “There’s been some gentle pushback,” he says, but most patients are happy to comply. “They know it’s helping keep everyone safe.”
Dean Jabs, a plastic surgeon in Bethesda, has hired two additional staff members since reopening in May 2020. He’s speaking with Bethesda Magazine from one of his exam rooms while his new surgical technician, Andrea, cuts his hair. She used to be a hair stylist. “Just as long as I don’t look like Bozo,” he tells her as she clips. It’s almost 6 p.m., and Jabs is volleying between Andrea’s comments about how much to trim and a reporter’s questions about his long hours. “I’m 67 years old and working 12-hour days,” he says.
A partner at Cosmetic Surgery Associates, Jabs is now running two surgical shifts, one around 6 a.m. and another four hours later. His office used to close by 5:30 each evening, but now he’s often there until 6:30 or 7. Though he’s trying to keep weekend shifts to a minimum, he says, “The joke around the office is that we only operate on days that end in a Y. ”
Jabs does a lot of breast augmentations and face-lifts. But women aren’t the only ones coming for procedures—about 20% of his patients are men. He recently treated a 20-year-old with gynecomastia, the medical term for an enlargement of breast tissue in males. The man says it made him look like he had breasts. He started noticing the condition when he was about 13, and it embarrassed him so much throughout middle school and high school that he’d position his backpack so the straps would cover his chest to make it look flatter. He works out a lot, but says no matter how much he exercised, the problem didn’t go away. While his gym was closed for COVID, he had a male breast reduction.
“It’s one of those things where people are saying, ‘I’ve thought about liposuction, I’ve thought about a breast augmentation, I’ve thought about doing my eyelids or my face,’ and they’ve had time now to sit at home, and they’ve got some money, and it’s like, ‘well, I might as well spend a little bit on me,’ ” Jabs says. “Plus, I think people need a little pick-me-up.”
Forty-year-old Heather Shapiro had just started a new job when the pandemic hit. The mid-Atlantic sales director of a wine company had more important things on her mind than cosmetic surgery. But by August—with COVID showing no sign of abating and customer visits a thing of the past—she decided to have a nose job. She’d thought about having the procedure over the years but never had time to give it serious consideration. It was an easy decision, she says, especially with her ability to “mask the recovery.”
Shapiro set up a consultation with Philip Schoenfeld, owner of Renu by Dr. Schoenfeld, in Chevy Chase, and booked her procedure with him for late December. In normal times, she says, “right after the Christmas holiday, the expectation would be that I’d be back in accounts, seeing customers and showing wine, and we’re just not doing that right now.” Shapiro, who moved from Rockville to Northwest D.C. a few years ago, says, “I took a hard look and said it’s a great time for some real self-care.”
When the stay-at-home order was issued, Schoenfeld, 58, started playing the guitar again—and used the downtime to expand his social media presence. His two twentysomething kids had come home at the start of the pandemic, and his daughter helped him navigate the online platforms and post videos about his practice and cosmetic procedures he’s performed. Within weeks, he says his Instagram and Facebook pages, and his website, were flooded with inquiries. “It was very clear that this was a theme—it wasn’t just a flash in the pan—and it’s still going to this day,” he says.
Schoenfeld says the pandemic has been the “perfect storm” for cosmetic surgeons. “Up until a year ago, nobody saw themselves on Zoom before,” he says. “They’re not going out to dinner, they’re not going on trips, they’re not doing things they normally do.” He says even traditionally slower months for plastic surgery, like January and February, weren’t slow this year.
“I’m doing nose jobs on people [in January] who normally would have waited for the summer,” he says. “Now [they’re] working from home, [they can have] surgery on a Thursday or a Friday and take one sick day rather than one or two weeks off. It’s changed the dynamic of getting surgery.”
Sabrina Yescas, 22, a senior at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, took advantage of her school’s extended winter break for her rhinoplasty. She had a consultation with Schoenfeld last summer, when she was back home in Kensington, and scheduled surgery for this past January. “We had an extra week of winter break instead of spring break,” she says, which gave her more recovery time. “You don’t feel like you’re missing out—there were no social things to look forward to.”
For Christine (not her real name), a 56-year-old who lives in Darnestown, the journey toward cosmetic surgery started 11 years ago. An ambitious corporate executive, she began noticing that people in her office in their mid-30s were being positioned for higher level jobs she was in line for. “I was always in the potential succession plan to sit at the C-suite table,” she says. At 45, she says those in upper management essentially told her she wasn’t really “high potential” anymore. She’d been at the company for 25 years, rising through the ranks to become a vice president. She had hoped to take on more responsibilities and eventually land a senior vice president role if and when it became available. “I still had the capability, commitment and aspiration I always had,” she says. “What had changed was my age.”
Christine was so stunned to learn that she was being passed over that she “changed jobs, changed companies, changed industries,” she says. Now a vice president at a different company, the doctoral candidate and mother of three used her time working from home during the pandemic to see Jabs for a lower face and neck lift. She had the procedure last November, when she’d normally be hosting holiday dinners. “I didn’t do it to look cute or pretty,” she says. “I did it to stay relevant.”
On the surface, Christine says, most organizations know that many women today choose to work well past their 50s and that companies can’t discriminate based on age, but “when you hit 55 to 65, people are just thinking, Wow, when are you retiring? And a lot of women 55 today don’t want to retire anytime soon—in fact, they’re smarter, they’re better, they are stronger than ever before. But there’s still a judgment.”
Christine says she doesn’t want to look older than she feels, and she doesn’t want to give off the vibe that she’s close to retirement when she isn’t. Four months later, she only has one complaint about her procedure: “I wish they wouldn’t call it plastic surgery,” she says. “I think they should call it ‘generational rejuvenation.’ ”
Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.