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The Case of the Misplaced Belly Button – Podcast #54

Are you if you are an inny or an outy? I remember as a kid that this was a big deal, but have not put much thought into it since.

I was surprised by searching the Internet that this is actually a concern among parents – apparently being an outy is not the social norm. The forums are filled with parents freaking out that their kid has an outy. There really are people that undergo surgery to correct this life-shattering problem.

And, believe it or not, as I was sitting here writing this story, I couldn’t remember if I was an inny or an outy. I had to check and found out that I am a bit of an outy. I guess that explains all of the problems that I had getting dates for the forty-five years that I was single. It has clearly made a big psychological mess of my life.

This leads me to today’s story, which is all about bellybuttons. Make that bellybutton – singular – just one bellybutton – the bellybutton of a Poughkeepsie, NY woman named Virginia O’Hare. Ms. O’Hare was a 42-year-old divorced mother of three when this story hit the press in mid-April of 1979.

Virginia O'Hare
Virginia O’Hare. Image appeared on page 15 of the May 9, 1979 publication of the Star-Gazette.

She had made the decision to undergo the knife and get the so-called tummy-tuck surgery to tighten up her stomach area in November of 1974 at Midtown Hospital in Manhattan. When the surgery was completed, Ms. O’Hare decided to sue her doctor – prominent plastic surgeon Dr. Howard Bellin – for $1.5 million because her bellybutton was supposedly two inches off of center.

Her attorney, Theodore Friedman claimed, “The experience caused her emotional shock and anguish… and she came apart at the seams.” He also added that Dr. Bellin promised that she would have “a nice, flat belly” after the surgery.” He didn’t mention to the press that this surgery produces a big scar that runs across the waist from one hipbone to the other, but is strategically placed so that it is typically hidden by the top of one’s undergarments. If you are curious, go to your favorite search engine and search for images of tummy tucks. I never realized how serious the surgery was until I saw the images.

Dr. Bellin responded to the charge by stating “The bellybutton was off ever so slightly, but well within the limits, well within the midline.” He estimated that it was ½” off-center, at most.

One would think that a lawsuit like this would never get to a courtroom. One would expect that the insurance company would throw a few bucks her way and she would go away, but not in this case. The case ended up in front of a jury of four men and two women.

Ms. O’Hare’s star witness was Dr. Phillip Casson, who had moved her bellybutton back to its correct location one-year after the supposed botched surgery. As you would expect, her lawyer went out of his way to show the jury just how injurious this was to her life. It supposedly took a big toll on her intimate life, if you know what I mean. The surgery cut her “in half physically and emotionally.” The bellybutton was described as being a “large deformed hole” and the resulting scar being of “significant thickness.”

Dr. Bellin testified that the reason that the bellybutton was off-center was that he had to repair an umbilical hernia during the operation. Dr. Bellin’s team painted Ms. O’Hare as a plastic surgery junkie. Prior to the tummy tuck, Dr. Bellin had performed successful operations on both her nose and eyelids, as well as an eyelift on her boyfriend. In total, she had nine previous surgeries on her nose, although MS. O’Hare claimed these were not done for vanity’s sake. Instead, she claimed to have suffered a broken nose at age 11 after being hit by a football.

There was an eight-day trial and the jury took just four hours to reach a verdict in the case. To the shock of everyone, on May 2nd of 1979, Ms. O’Hare was awarded $854,000 (adjusted for inflation, that is about $3-million!). How they came up with this amount is quite interesting. They gave her $100,000 for pain and suffering, $4,219 to cover the cost of the bellybutton relocation surgery and $750,000 for loss of earnings.

Personally, I find the $750,000 for loss of wages to be the most intriguing. It got me thinking as to what type of job would require the exposure of one’s navel. Being a public school teacher, I can tell you that is certainly not one of them. Maybe she was a belly dancer, a world-class surfer, or a 42-year-old bikini model. To my surprise, it was none of these possibilities. During the trial, it was pointed out that “her sense of self-worth was damaged” and that – get this – “her ability to function as the owner of a Poughkeepsie employment agency was impaired.”

As soon as the decision was handed down, Dr. Bellin and his lawyers made plans to appeal. Dr. Bellin said, “Talk about the high cost of medical care. Here is where the money goes – $854,000 to a woman who is physically able to work. What are they going to give somebody who loses an arm or a leg, and can’t legitimately work?”

It was widely reported that Ms. O’Hare was satisfied with the verdict and said “A centered belly button is a valuable feminine attribute. Cher made millions on hers.”

One month later, the lawyers for both sides met behind closed doors in State Supreme Court Justice Alvin Klein’s chambers. On June 5th, it was announced that they had agreed to a reduced settlement of $200,000. The NY Times reported that “Mrs. O’Hare’s attorney was said to agree to the settlement to block a planned appeal that could have reduced the award even further or wiped it out.”

And that was the last of Ms. O’Hare making the news. Dr. Bellin had some fame prior to this trial, having been featured in a 1975 Barbara Walters interview with his then-wife – the late Christina Paolozzi – that they had a successful open marriage – so successful that it ended in divorce in 1982. They were well known at the time for throwing extravagant parties for the rich and famous of the ’70s. Today, Dr. Bellin is one of those celebrity plastic surgeons that you see on TV. He has been featured on Oprah, Geraldo, MTV, various news programs, and has appeared on the reality TV show The Real Housewives of New York City.

I did skip one very, very important detail in telling this story. For some reason, nearly every person that I have told this story to has asked me the same question – Was the belly button off-centered to the left or to the right? I am not sure what difference it makes to the story, but for the sake of completeness, it was off to the right.

So, are you an inny or an outy?

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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