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BBC2 9:30pm Thursday 17th February 2000
What happens when a completely healthy person wants their leg amputated?
Gregg is 55 and does not feel physically whole. This is despite
the fact that he is physically healthy and able-bodied. Gregg believes
he is incomplete with two legs and it has been his life-long struggle
to get doctors to agree that removing one of his legs is the right
thing for him. He isn't delusional. He knows what he is asking for
and knows it is strange. But he cannot help his feelings. Gregg
suffers from a rare but genuine psychological disorder - a form
of body dysmorphia. And Gregg is not alone.
Although Body Dysmorphia is rare, a worldwide network of sufferers
is growing and demanding treatment. It affects both men and women
and each person has a precise sense of which limb or limbs they
Cases were cited a hundred years ago but still very little is known
about the disorder. No one knows what causes it and very few psychiatrists
have even encountered patients with the disorder. All that the patients
seem to have in common is a strong memory of the first amputee they
saw. They also report that the feelings started in childhood. However,
the profession is now being forced to respond and devise methods
of treatment. If not treated, it has been reported that suffers
can go to extreme lengths to remove the unwanted limbs themselves.
Some have even committed suicide.
The difficulty with the condition is that the conventional methods
for treating psychological problems, drugs and therapy, do not seem
to be effective. The only treatment that does seem to be effective
is surgery - actually removing the limb. The idea of using surgery
is highly controversial and has divided the medical community. Some
physicians consider it much too drastic a measure, possibly conflicting
with their Hippocratic oath, not to cause harm. Others believe that
it is the only way to free the patient of their obsession, 'curing'
them of their psychological problem.
At the present time, there is only one surgeon in Britain who has
been prepared to perform such operations and who has publicly defended
his decision. He has operated on two patients, both of who claim
to be delighted with their new body-image and now free to get on
with the rest of their lives.
There are many other patients who seek similar treatment. Horizon
'Complete Obsession' follows a year in the lives of people who are
body dysmorphic and are determined to have their limbs surgically
removed. It follows the process they go through to try and achieve