May 21, 1979 12:00 PM

It was the worst thing to happen to a navel since Hugh Hefner began stapling Playmates into the centerfold. Awakening after cosmetic abdominal surgery—playfully known in the trade as a “tummy tuck”—Virginia O’Hare discovered in November 1974 that her belly button was not where she had left it. Rather, it appeared to have shifted two inches left of center, and was underscored by what the distraught O’Hare later described as a “grisly, thick 20-inch scar.”

Though corrective surgery eventually returned the navel to its proper location, the emotional and physical scars could not be erased—or so O’Hare complained. She demanded redress, and a New York supreme court jury awarded her an $854,000 judgment against plastic surgeon Dr. Howard Bellin, 43. It was Bellin, says O’Hare, 42, who told her the ignominious “tuck” would give her a “flat, sexy belly,” with only a hairline scar from hipbone to hipbone. “Instead, I looked like somebody had mutilated me,” she says. “It was like something out of a Frankenstein horror show.”

Dr. Bellin maintains that O’Hare’s navel was never more than a half inch off-center, and that happened only because he repaired an umbilical hernia during the operation. He insists O’Hare was warned repeatedly about the risks—including the possibility that thick scars could develop. Previously, he points out, she had been satisfied with the surgery he had performed on her nose and eyelids, and also with an eyelift on her boyfriend. But about a month after I’affaire nombril, Bellin began to suspect there would be trouble. “She told my nurse that with this belly button she thought she could make a bundle,” he says, “and she was right.”

O’Hare, the divorced mother of three, is disturbed by criticism of the size of her award. Her self-confidence was shattered by her disfigurement, she says, and she was forced to abandon a profitable employment agency business in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She is appalled by the suggestion that she is a cosmetic surgery junkie who had her nose redone nine times out of vanity. “When I was 11, I was hit by a football and my nose was broken,” she says. “I didn’t breathe through it again until I was 27.” During surgery to facilitate her breathing, part of the bridge of her nose was removed, and subsequent operations were to rebuild it, she claims. “I do not,” she emphasizes, “enjoy being cut up.”

Dr. Bellin, meanwhile, is confident the verdict will be reversed on appeal. If not, it will be covered by malpractice insurance, for which he pays $14,000 a year. “Talk about the high cost of medical care,” he exclaims. “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 legitimately can’t work?”

For Bellin, notoriety is nothing new. In 1975 he and his Italian-bred wife, Christina Paolozzi, discussed their dolce vita marriage—which allows each sexual freedom—on national TV with Barbara Walters. “It was very damaging,” he says, wincing at the memory. “I’m chief plastic surgeon at a Catholic hospital which I love, and that kind of stuff just doesn’t go.” Has the wandering belly button harmed him professionally? “There have been no patient cancellations,” he says, “and I’m still solidly booked for surgery four months ahead.”

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