The way Dr. Marci L. Bowers sees it, societal acceptance of transgender persons has come a long way, and the future of transgender surgery is bright.
“Who thought that we’d have our decathlon winner Bruce Jenner become Caitlyn?” Dr. Bowers said at the annual scientific meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons in Indian Wells, Calif. “Who thought that the brothers who created “The Matrix” movies [Larry and Andy Wachowski] would become sisters? All in this past year?”
As the first transgender surgeon to perform transgender surgery in North America, Dr. Bowers knows of what she speaks. In fact, she recently joined the faculty at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York to help launch what she said will be the first U.S.-based surgical training program for transgender medicine in nearly 40 years.
“An academic institution doing these procedures is really revolutionary,” she said. “I think it’s going to really help how things are taught and described to practitioners.”
She said she also hopes the effort helps stem the “high percentage” of transgender teenagers who attempt or commit suicide. According to 7,261 transgender students in grades 6-12 who responded to the 2009 National School Climate Survey , 61% reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 40% because of how they expressed their gender; 19% said they have been punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon on at least one occasion within the last year because of their sexual orientation and 13% because of their gender expression; and 53% reported cyberbullying because of their gender identity.
“We need to stop losing these people,” she said. “My kids are now in their early 20s. This generation is asking for honesty in the areas of sexuality and gender identity.”
Dr. Bowers, who graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1986 and did her ob.gyn. residency at the University of Washington, Seattle, characterized the notion of being “misgendered” as a biologic process. “If you look around nature, there is no single measure anywhere in biology that offers only two choices, besides gender,” said Dr. Bowers, who underwent male to female reassignment surgery at age 39. “So when you think about it, the world is represented by a spectrum; it’s represented by diversity. That’s what transgender is, the inner concept of maleness and femaleness. It can’t be just two choices. This is what’s coming to the surface as this movement takes hold.”
After practicing ob.gyn. in Seattle for 13 years, Dr. Bowers relocated to Trinidad, Colo., where she learned and began to practice transgender surgery under the tutelage of the late Dr. Stanley Biber, who performed more than 4,000 sex reassignment surgeries. After working there for 8 years, Dr. Bowers moved her practice to Burlingame, Calif., where she currently performs about 140 male to female operations each year and has a 3-year waiting list. During each 3-hour operation the testicles are removed, the glans penis becomes the clitoris, the scrotum becomes the labia majora, the urethra becomes the labia minora mucosa, the scrotum/penile skin becomes the vagina, and the Cowper’s glands and prostate are retained. Results are “rather convincing,” she said.
Most patients require a hospital stay of up to 3 days, and the most common complication is wound separation/dehiscence, which occurs in 3%-9% of cases. Out-of-pocket costs average about $25,000 per case, but a growing number of insurers now pay for the procedure.
“A dozen years ago, only one company in the Fortune 500 covered transgender surgery,” she said. “Now in our practice, nearly 90% of insurers do, about 70% of the Fortune 500 companies do, and 12 states mandate coverage for all of their citizens to be covered for transgender surgery. It’s really changed.”
In 2009 the American Medical Association passed a resolution supporting public and private insurance coverage for the treatment of gender identity disorder. According to Dr. Bowers, this came about in part because of a 2009 landmark study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Quality and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force that found that more than half of transgender and gender nonconforming people who were bullied, harassed, or assaulted in school because of their gender identity have attempted suicide. In 2011, ACOG’s Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women published an opinion on health care for transgender individuals . Part of its recommendation was that ob. gyns. “should be prepared to assist or refer transgender individuals for routine treatment and screening as well as hormonal and surgical therapies.” According to guidelines from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), individuals seeking transgender surgery should undergo a psychological evaluation, 1 year of cross-sex hormone therapy, and 1 year of desired gender role, and be at least 18 years of age before undergoing surgery itself.
“Gender identity is established early; this is not something that somebody wakes up with,” said Dr. Bowers, who has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” “Discovery Health,” and CNN, and was named one of Huffington Post’s 50 Transgender Icons. “Yes, they need to have a psychological evaluation. Yes, they need to live in their desired gender role, and yes, they need to be on hormones, but other than that, they rarely regret their decision to move forward medically and surgically. Almost never.”
During a presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians, Dr. Henry Ng noted that some transgender patients are ambivalent about undergoing gender reassignment surgery. “A lot of them don’t want surgery because it’s not a covered benefit under most health plans, it’s expensive, and it does require a lot of healing time because it’s a very invasive procedure,” said Dr. Ng of the departments of internal medicine and pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. “Especially for certain procedures like phalloplasty, those procedures have not been developed to a point where we can avoid a lot of complications.”
Dr. Ng, who is also clinical director of the MetroHealth Pride Clinic in Cleveland, noted that general health screening guidelines for transgender patients can be found at www.transhealth.ucsf.edu/protocols . “The good news is that it’s really no different than that versus gender people: cardiovascular health; tobacco use; addressing issues of mood disorders/depression, in part related to the experience of microaggressions and macroaggressions from discrimination, violence, and hate-motivated violence on a day-to-day basis; thyroid disease; respiratory illnesses that may be associated with increased use of tobacco products; sexual health; and vaccinations,” he said. “These are all important to include in a general health screening for transgender people.” A free consultation service known as TransLine offers physicians clinical information about transgender issues and individualized case consultation. For information, visit www.project-health.org/transline .
According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Quality Index, scores of major employers in the United States, including 3M, Amazon.com, American Express, Boeing, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, UnitedHealth Group, Visa, and Xerox, offer at least one transgender-inclusive health care coverage plan. A list of insurers who offer transgender health coverage can be found here . The Human Rights Campaign also notes that seven states that have both bans on insurance exclusions for transgender health care and provide transgender inclusive benefits for state employees: New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, California, Oregon, and Washington. The National Center for Transgender Quality notes that since May of 2014, Medicare coverage decisions for transition-related surgeries are “made individually on the basis of medical need and applicable standards of care, similar to other doctor or hospital services under Medicare.”
When a patient realizes that his or her employer has not opted in to cover transgender care as part of its health insurance offerings, “it’s heartbreaking to be the middle man,” Dr. Cecile Unger, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic center for female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, said in an interview. “Some patients start calculating how much they need to save weekly or monthly [in order to pay out of pocket]. They figure out where they want to have surgery. We provide them with the exact self-pay numbers. They usually will shop around a bit to see what some of the other providers are offering. Some patients will try to get their names on the books a year-and-a-half or two ahead of time.”
The cost of procedures varies. For example, the price of a vaginoplasty at the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery is $12,600, plus $7,150 in anesthesia, operating room, and hospital stay charges, for a total of $19,750. The center’s cost for female to male surgery at the center are slightly higher. For example, the price of a phalloplasty, scrotoplasty, testicular implants, glansplasty, and transposition of the clitoris is $15,500, plus $5,750 in anesthesia, OR, and hospital charges, for a total of $21,250.
Wound separation and wound-healing problems are the most common complications after gender reassignment surgery, Dr. Unger said, “but within 4-12 weeks usually those issues resolve themselves with a bit of conservative wound care, and don’t require more surgery. Infection is quite rare. Hematoma formation is not common in the first few days after surgery. In female to male procedures, there’s a bit of a risk for stricture of the urethra, which can lead to problems with voiding and fistula formation.”
Discussing realistic expectations with patients preoperatively is key, Dr. Unger said, especially in terms of scarring and cosmesis. “Most of the time you get a great result, but patients should also understand that everybody’s anatomy is different and everybody’s wound healing is different, so [they] have to be flexible and understand that secondary procedures are sometimes necessary to get the perfect outcomes,” she said.
Another procedure Dr. Bowers provides in her practice is functional clitoroplasty for females who have undergone genital mutation, a procedure that has impacted an estimated 140 million women worldwide, especially those in Indonesia. “These women often have never had orgasm in their life because all or part of the clitoris and the labia have been excised,” Dr. Bowers said. “It’s one of the great human tragedies.”
In a procedure that takes about an hour, Dr. Bowers restores refibulation and sensation for women who have been genitally mutilated – at no charge to them. “We 100% of the time find the clitoris when we do these operations,” she said. “We refibulate, we release the suspensory ligament, we anchor the clitoral body down, and that restores function. From the letters I receive, this is a miracle for these patients, to feel orgasm for the first time in your life. Imagine restoring sight to a blind person. It’s that profound.”
Dr. Bowers disclosed that she is a member of WPATH and that she serves on the board of directors of GLAAD and the Transgender Law Center . The meeting was jointly sponsored by the American College of Surgeons.