New face of gift card

Certificate good for thousands in cosmetic surgery is increasingly popular present, but giver takes a risk

December 21, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

As Christmas approached two years ago, Patrick Pieper was stumped - what should he get his wife? Then inspiration struck: a gift certificate, redeemable at a Baltimore doctor's office, for $7,000 in facial plastic surgery.

"They gave me an envelope and I got a nice card and put it in a box," he said. "I think I stuck it in her stocking. I thought it was the perfect gift."

Some might argue that Pieper harbored a death wish. And Suzanne Pieper, 43, does recall being "shocked" when she opened the card Christmas morning in their Perry Hall home.

Fortunately for her husband, she was shocked by the value of the gift, not the sentiment behind it. "It was a lot of money," she said. "I was very happy to receive it."

Doctors say gift vouchers like the Piepers' - for procedures ranging from Botox injections to silicone breast implants - are popping up more frequently as birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day and Christmas presents.

Although physicians differ over the ethical implications of the "gifting" trend, they point to anecdotal evidence that it's growing with the popularity of plastic surgery itself.

"It's definitely becoming more common as plastic surgery is becoming accepted by more people," said Dr. Darab Hormozi, a Baltimore surgeon who specializes in eyelid surgery and laser skin resurfacing.

Hormozi said television shows glorifying plastic surgery, such as Nip/Tuck, The Swan and Extreme Makeover, have piqued people's interest in cosmetic procedures.

"Also, we have the baby boomers who are reaching their 60s and don't like to look old - and they have the means to pay for surgery," he said. "It used to be something that was for the elite, but now, many more people are doing it."

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates its members performed 10.2 million cosmetic surgeries at a cost of $9.4 billion in 2005. That's a 38 percent increase in the number of surgeries since 2000.

Doctors compete fiercely for patients, who typically pay for surgery out of pocket because the procedures aren't covered by insurance. "Plastic surgery is one of those things where people go for a second or third opinion," said Hormozi. "It's not unusual for a patient to come to me and say they've seen other doctors."

To compete, surgeons offer patients free consultations and advertise in the media. In the November issue of Baltimore magazine alone, ads for cosmetic surgery took up 12 full pages.

Although he doesn't offer gift certificates, Hormozi sees them as another form of marketing. "The business of plastic surgery - it's a business," he said, "and each person has their own way of pulling in patients."

Although vouchers might be a recent phenomenon, plastic surgery as a gift is not. "The marketing of it is new, but the reality of it is old," said Dr. Ricardo Rodriguez, the Baltimore surgeon who operated on Suzanne Pieper.

A 2005 survey by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that 40 percent of cosmetic surgeons had a patient who received a surgical procedure as a gift. Women typically receive the gift from their husbands or mothers, doctors said.

Rodriguez said he writes out gift certificates from time to time, especially around Christmas, but only when he has already consulted with the patient.

"It's never like the husband wants a wife to have bigger breasts and so goes out and gets a gift certificate," he said. "The woman has always voiced her desire to have the surgery."

When Suzanne Pieper's husband came into Rodriguez's office to buy the gift certificate, both men were sure that was the case. In fact, Rodriguez had already operated on her two years earlier to remove loose skin from her stomach.

"I'd lost a lot of weight," Suzanne Pieper said, "and I had a lot of stuff left over that I couldn't get rid of."

During her consultations for that surgery, she had also talked with Rodriguez about having surgery on her eyes and forehead.

"My eyebrows and everything had fallen kind of low on my face," she said. "In my family, for some reason, it's like having pillows overtop of your eyes. It's almost a flap of skin. If they drop over far enough, they start to invade the vision."

She says she was delighted when her husband gave her the gift certificate for Christmas. She had the surgery a few months later.

"I'm very happy with it and I'm glad I did it," she said. "People always told me I looked tired. Now people see me and they ask me if I lost weight."

She does not, however, recommend buying a gift voucher for someone who hasn't expressed a desire for cosmetic surgery.

"Boy, if guys start doing that, some are going to be in big trouble on Christmas morning," she said. "It's a touchy issue. I would feel bad giving my husband a gift card and saying, `Go get liposuction to get your love handles removed.'"

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