5 tips for picking a good plastic surgeon

Empowered Patient, a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Michele Trobaugh regrets the day she heard a radio advertisement for Dr. Jan Adams.

Eager to fix breasts that weren't the same size and a rash that occurred where her breasts rubbed against her stomach, Trobaugh, then 28, went to see Adams in his office in Huntington Beach, California. She says she trusted him right away.

"I fell for his charm. I fell for his confidence," she says.

But her surgery turned out to be a "nightmare," she says.

Trobaugh says that in March 2006, Adams gave her a breast augmentation, tummy tuck and liposuction -- all at one time.

"The next day I woke up fighting for every breath. It was like an elephant was sitting on my chest," she says. "And when I got up to go the restroom I noticed the girdle I was wearing was soaked with fluid and blood. For days I was soaking through blankets and towels."

Trobaugh says she had three infections. She had a second surgery a few weeks later to remove fluid from her hips.

Questions surrounding the death of another of Adams' patients, Donda West, mother of rapper Kanye West, have reignited Trobaugh's pain, she says. She has not sued Adams but says she may in the future.

Asked to respond to Trobaugh's comments, Adams issued a statement through his publicist, Kevin Williams.

"I believe very strongly in the fundamental American principle of the right of the individual to defend himself," the statement said. "Recently inaccurate and, frankly, false statements have ciruculated that require clarification. Unfortunately, it has become impossible to separate thsese statements from other professional issues. I will await my turn."

Today, Trobaugh has advice on how others can avoid becoming plastic surgery victims, and so do board-certified plastic surgeons.

Make sure the surgeon is board-certified

This one, say experts, is a no-brainer. For plastic surgery, you want a doctor who's certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. It's simple: The American Board of Medical Specialties' Web site will tell you if a doctor is board-certified in plastic surgery.

Why is it so important to have a board-certified surgeon? Because legally any doctor is permitted to do any procedure -- a psychiatrist could do a breast augmentation. If you use a board-certified plastic surgeon, you know he or she has completed three to five years of training in general surgery and a minimum of two to three years of training in plastic surgery, plus they have to take written and oral tests, according to Dr. Jim Stuzin, chairman-elect of the American Board of Plastic Surgery and assistant clinical professor at the University of Miami.

Board-certified plastic surgeons also have to do continuing medical education and take a written test every 10 years.

Check the surgeon's record

Trobaugh says she never would have gone to Adams if she'd known he had two malpractice judgments against him. She could have found that out easily by going to the Medical Board of California's Web site. Links to the Web sites of every state's medical board can be found here.

Many state licensing boards, like California's, list malpractice judgments, plus any disciplinary actions by the board. (Since Trobaugh's surgery, Adams has had a third malpractice judgment against him, plus an accusation filed with the board).

Ask if the surgeon has hospital privileges

Even if you're having a plastic surgery procedure at an outpatient clinic, it's worth asking where the doctor has hospital privileges, because hospitals do background checks, says Dr. Rod Rohrich, past president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "If they don't have hospital privileges, that's a huge red flag," he says.

Come armed with questions for the doctor

One crucial question for your potential surgeon is how often he or she does the procedure you're interested in. "If I'm coming to you for a facelift, you'd better do it almost weekly," says Rohrich, who's also chairman of the department of plastic surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The Arizona Medical Board's Web site has a list of questions you can print out and bring with you to the doctor's office. For example, the medical board suggests asking whether the physician will be performing the procedure in its entirety.

Be wary of multiple procedures

Trobaugh says when she went to Adams, he suggested three procedures. "When you bundle procedures, the risk goes up," says Stuzin, the plastic surgeon in Miami.

The more procedures you have, the more money the doctor makes. Dr. Grant Carlson, a plastic surgeon at Emory University School of Medicine, says an unethical surgeon might suggest a neck lift when someone has come in looking for just for a nose job. "Unfortunately, money is a motivation in some people."

Perhaps the most valuable advice, Trobaugh says, is to be swayed only by objective information about the surgeon, and not by how the doctor makes you feel. "[Adams] truly sounded like he was going to help me. He seemed like he would be truly concerned about me," she says.

But Trobaugh says that when things didn't go well after her surgery, she was taken aback by Adams' response. "I told him, 'I can't put my right arm down -- there's a huge lump under my arm.' I was crying," she says. She says he told her to take her medicine and rest and give herself time to heal.

More than a year and a half after her surgery, Trobaugh says her stomach is "concave," she has shooting pains in her breasts, and her "nipples are uneven and in the wrong place."

Trobaugh says she wishes she had taken a friend or relative with her to her pre-surgical appointments with Adams. "An aunt or my mother or some other strong female in my life might have picked up on things I didn't pick up on, or thought of questions I didn't think of," she says.

"And there are no stupid questions when you're about to alter yourself in some major way."

Elizabeth Cohen is a correspondent with CNN Medical News. CNN's Miriam Falco, Jennifer Pifer and Sabriya Rice contributed to this report.