In medical school and even during residency to an extent, I thought I wanted to do cancer related surgery, specifically removing tumors in the head and neck region. While I was training for that, I thought, well, it'd be really good for me to know the reconstructive aspects of this also because the two go hand in hand. Traditionally, what happens is one team goes in and does the resection and another team comes in and does the closure. There’s some conversation there, but it’s two separate teams. I thought that by learning the reconstruction part of things, it would make me a better surgical oncologist. During my training, the nurses in the OR would say, “You should really think about becoming a plastic surgeon,” because I would always take my time to close the incision and make sure it looked perfect, because in my head, if we just tried to help cure this person of their cancer, why leave them with a scar that constantly reminds them of it in a negative way, right?
So much of recon is just about putting things back together in a functional way because priority number one is to get rid of the tumor and give this person their life back. Priority number two is to give them a functional life back. This is especially important in the head and neck region because we want to make sure they can eat and speak again. Third, and very low on that list, is let's make it look pretty. I really thought the cosmetic aspect of this process was lacking and it still is in a lot of ways.
I was initially resistant to becoming a plastic surgeon though. I had this firm belief of, “I went into medicine to help people, not to make people look pretty!” Because back then, that’s what I thought as a judgmental 20-something-year-old. I didn’t understand why people sought out plastic surgery. I wanted to spend more time learning about that, so as part of my training, I met all these patients who were having facelifts and rhinoplasty and things like that, and I’d ask them, “What’s your motivation for doing this?”
I kept hearing story after story about how these people dedicated their lives to other people—whether it's their kids or their husbands or their work—and 20, 30, 40 years would go by and when they looked in the mirror, they no longer recognized the person staring back at them. They're like who is this person? I feel so energetic and full of life, and I look in the mirror and this person looks so exhausted. That’s when I realized that plastic surgery isn’t just about making people look pretty. It's about making people feel more aligned with their own self-perceptions.