Surgeons’ Gifts: Plastic Surgery

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After the tsunami disaster, plastic and cosmetic surgeons also stepped up to help where and when they could. But even during normal times, many plastic surgeons routinely donate their time and remarkable skills, bestowing the gifts of changed lives upon complete strangers.

Plastic surgeons helping tsunami disaster victims? No, it’s not a case of emergency facelifts but of highly skilled practitioners lending a hand where and when they can.

For instance, in Beverly Hills, California, plastic surgeon Paul Wallace M.D. normally spends a lot of his time repairing the battered faces of boxers. Because he knows so much about facial trauma, Dr. Wallace is helping forensic experts in Thailand identify some of the hundreds of corpses stored under refrigeration. Many victims caught in the tsunami were simply battered to death by thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam, cars, trees and parts of buildings washing to and fro in the raging waters. Although Dr. Wallace worked in some cases with skeletal remains, he recreates facial images on computers using dental records and his knowledge of reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. When it all comes together, an image is constructed that relatives or colleagues may recognize to close the case of a missing person.

“I gained a new respect for the fragility of human life,” Dr. Wallace told CosmeticSurgery.com. Because he was working with decomposed remains, Dr. Wallace was double gloved and covered from head to toe in a plastic suit – despite the high humidity and 90-degree weather and 18-hour work shifts.

“I had to be cut out of the plastic suit every three hours and then drink water for 45 minutes before going back to work for another three hours,” Dr. Wallace says.

Tongtip Bongsadadt, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Toms River, New Jersey, built a successful practice after emigrating to the U.S. two decades ago from her home in Thailand.

When the tsunami hit, Dr. Bongsadadt had already packed her bags and was on her way to the outlying and mountainous areas of Thailand where she normally repairs children’s’ cleft palates and lips and performs webbed hand and feet corrections. But this time, because of the huge need, she first checked in the Thai Red Cross to see where her skills can best be used, according to Dr. Bongsadadt’s medical assistant, Barbra Doyle

Other plastic surgeons help closer to home.

Jointly administered by the American Academy of Facial Plastic Surgeons and the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, Face to Face chooses selected victims of domestic battering to undergo plastic surgery to correct scarred faces. However, the recipient must be living completely on her own and away from the destructive relationship for at least a year. Virtually all the patients are women, who usually regain enough self-confidence and esteem to quit avoiding mirrors, lift their eyes up from the floor, leave the house, apply for jobs, finish school and otherwise resume a more or less normal life. While plastic surgery not only makes faces look better, it also affects what’s inside the mind and spirit.

“I get so much out of helping these patients, I almost feel guilty,” says plastic surgeon Cynthia Gregg, M.D. in Cary, North Carolina. “It’s not only important for these women to look good again but to have the physical reminders of abuse gone. A patient once told me, ‘I want his hands off my face and his hands off my heart.’

“I do this kind of work because it’s the right thing to do,” says Dr. Gregg who so far has operated on about 15 abuse victims and remains close to many as they pick up the pieces of a life almost lost. For instance, Dr. Gregg attended the wedding of a patient, a woman whose husband dumped a caustic mixture of bleach and drain cleaner over her head, creating horrible scarring.

“Face to Face has two arms,” explains Steven J. Pearlman, M.D. president-elect of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. “An international arm does reconstructive work on patients in China, Vietnam and other places overseas. In the U.S., the program helps victims of domestic violence.”

Some physicians in The American Society of Plastic Surgeons take their surgical skills to some of the neediest people in the world through another global program, RSVP (Reconstructive Surgeons Volunteer Program.) Yet another organization, the 35-year-old Interplast, sends volunteer surgeons to about 25 sites around the world to correct disabled injuries and congenital deformities. About 54,000 life-changing operations have been given to impoverished patients.

Face the Challenge, a religious and humanitarian organization, usually donates plastic and reconstructive surgery to Third World children with deformities. But when the organization’s co-founder, Randy Robinson, M.D. of Denver, Colorado, heard about the case of then 16-year-old Shawn Perdon in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, he had to call and offer his help. Shawn was hit by a drunk driver and injured so severely, the last rites were read over him. He spent a month in a coma and woke with terrible facial deformities, including one eye drooped down onto his cheek, a smashed nose, dents in his forehead, scars across his face and sunken cheeks.

“I’ve been in medicine most my life,” says Ginger Robinson, R.N. and Face the Challenge president, “and it took away my breath to look at Shawn. I really had to steel myself to visit at him.”

According to Shan’s mother, Carol, their health insurance carrier would not cover reconstructive surgery because the company considered the plastic procedures elective, cosmetic surgery, and not medically necessary. Shawn’s appearance was hard enough to bear but the fact that little children fled from him in terror was crushing.

In surgery, Dr. Robinson peeled Shawn’s face back, rebuilt his skull, removing 90 surgical screws from the lad’s face. The doctor used bone grafts and surgical paste to fill in the dents in Shawn’s forehead, rebuilt his left eye, created a new nose, installed cheek implants and created a more balanced face.

“My husband and I do this type of work because, from the time we were in college, we wanted to use our skills to benefit people in need and show compassion,” says Ginger Robinson. “Shawn is special to us because our middle son is almost exactly the same age and because Shawn has a soft spot in his heart for little children.”

Just after Leo McCafferty, M.D., started his professional life in a Florida burn unit, Analliese Barnes, then nine months old, was terribly burned in a house fire and brought to the emergency room where a young Dr. McCafferty worked. His heart went out to the child because he had a daughter about the same age. At first, it was a matter of saving the toddler’s life, but for the young victim, it turned into a life-long relationship with the doctor who became a plastic surgeon. Nonetheless, Dr. McCafferty has never charged Analliese’s family for his services. And when the doctor moved to Pittsburg, Analliese and her family followed.

“Analliese was burned and severely scared on the left side of her body, from the top of her scalp to the tip of her toes,” says Dr. McCafferty who has to date performed 31 plastic surgeries on the now 16-year-old to help correct the damage from the fire.

“Whatever your profession, there is a way to help people,” says Dr. McCafferty.

“There is no greater feeling in the world than giving of yourself,” says Ronald J. Canigllia M.D. in Scottsdale, Arizona, yet another plastic surgeon who volunteers his time to victims of domestic violence. “I feel blessed with the skills I have and to help somebody better her life is one of the things that keep me going.”

William E. Silver, M.D., of Premier Image Cosmetic Surgery in Atlanta, Georgia, yearly donates his services to two or three battering victims who – except for the terrible facial injuries -- are ready to make a step up in life.

“I particularly recall one fiftyish woman who had all her teeth knocked out, an eyebrow torn off and many other facial scars,” Dr. Silver says. After the doctor donated a year of plastic surgery and other restorative procedures, the woman regained a measure of confidence, screwed her courage to the sticking point, brushed off an older college degree and became a top manager at Bell South where she counseled other women victims of battering as part of her job.

For more information, visit http://www.CosmeticSurgery.com

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Brent Frank