We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.
I have always admired Winston Churchill. He stood up for freedom when many would not. He serves as a role model for not compromising on values believed to be dear to humanity.
Every day as a plastic surgeon, I get to live a key value which I hold dear, and which I believe is a cornerstone of the human experience: I help people. Our aesthetic patients enter our lives because they are dissatisfied with part of their outward appearance; our reconstructive patients enter our lives needing part of their bodies rebuilt, or repaired. When they leave our operating rooms and clinics—for they will never truly leave our lives—they feel and look closer to the true self they want and deserve. I hope we all entered this great field of plastic surgery for that overarching reason: because we wanted to help people improve, recover, or grow in some way.
I remember vividly when I was a medical student and watched Dr. Mel Spira at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, perform a cleft lip repair. I was hooked for life as I witnessed the transformation of a young baby, and from that moment forward, I wanted to become a plastic surgeon. The opportunity to give back to a patient form and function, to give back to a patient a semblance of normal and possibly a better life, and to give back to society was indeed made possible through plastic surgery. The opportunity and responsibility have motivated me each and every day I’ve been a plastic surgeon.
The role models I have had in plastic surgery demonstrated the humanitarian side of our specialty to me firsthand. Alongside them, and in their footsteps, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in international cleft trips to Haiti, Mexico, and throughout South America, during my residency and in my practice. Although these were charitable missions designed to help others, I believe that I required and benefited from these experiences more than anyone else. I sensed the need to give back for all that I had learned from my mentors in plastic surgery from all over the globe. I feel so fortunate for all that I have in my life; but I feel even more fortunate for the opportunity and ability to give back. A serious lesson from an ostensibly silly piece of theater applies here: in the musical Avenue Q the cast sings “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.” This all begs the question: Is giving back an innate, human response or a result of our life experiences?
If giving back were truly innate, I think more plastic surgeons would do so. To be sure, we all inherently want to leave the Earth a better place for our family and humanity. Eventually, we expand this goodwill toward our specialty and our patients molded by our experiences in life. Therefore, I believe giving back is a combination of our genetic composition influenced by our upbringing and surroundings. For example, my parents were wonderful role models for me, as they had so little in material goods but gave us so much in terms of life lessons. They emphasized to always help others less fortunate first and then you can help yourself next. I learned from them that everything would always work out if you prioritized helping those that could not help themselves. Although this is natural to me, it just seems we need more of this type of mindset in plastic surgery.
We must strive to make “giving back” an integral part of curriculum of medical training programs. Trainees must not only see us as role models who continue to give back throughout our careers, but also be instructed in how to influence others in giving back as well; this would initiate a domino effect of philanthropy and kindness. To be sure, training programs, particularly in plastic surgery, do a tremendous job teaching the management and treatment of disease, but can and must do better in incorporating more essential and key life lessons on giving back to the communities in which they live so that they too can become part of the giving-back lifeline.
All of us serve in a mentorship role at some level and can use this to our advantage, engaging those around us in volunteerism. Certainly, taking a student on an overseas surgical mission will be a sure way to launch a lifelong path to giving back. However, participating domestically, in Breast Reconstruction Awareness events or with nonprofit organizations that raise awareness and funds for breast cancer patients, can be a viable option for instilling the giving-back characteristic as well. In addition, giving back does not have to relate to medicine, but can come in other forms such as serving food at local homeless shelters or donating toys to needy children around the holidays, which is what I have endeavored to do with my children as well.
Within plastic surgery, our societies do an incredible job of providing avenues for giving back. For example, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and The Plastic Surgery Foundation provide funding for patient care, research, and lobbying efforts on issues such as craniofacial deformities, breast reconstruction, and military injuries.1,2 Specifically, The Plastic Surgery Foundation, through its Volunteers in Plastic Surgery program, lists several organizations that plastic surgeons can join in the quest to give back internationally.3 The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery members frequently give back by volunteering their time to events requiring a plastic surgery skill set such as the aftermath of terrorist acts and natural disasters. Furthermore, many plastic surgeons have founded their own nonprofit organizations to treat congenital defects and injuries related to burn, hand, and trauma, which are now leading organizations in reducing the global surgical burden of disease. A good place to get started is on The Plastic Surgery Foundation’s Humanitarian Web page (available at www.thepsf.org/humanitarian.htm). In addition to Volunteers in Plastic Surgery, The Plastic Surgery Foundation’s service efforts include the Breast Reconstruction Awareness Fund and Caring for Kids.
Many plastic surgeon–powered volunteer efforts have led to publications ranging from a review of rare disorders to novel surgical techniques that can be found in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery–Global Open.4–7 Anyone with an inclination to give back will have no shortage of avenues to select from!
It should come as no surprise that plastic surgeons are in the forefront of giving back, as they are natural philanthropic leaders. I must say that giving back to those less fortunate or helping others has helped me remain grounded in my life; I think you might find it will do the same for you. Each day as we get engrossed in our lives and in what we do in our great profession, we can often lose sight of who and what matters most in life. For me personally, I believe that I serve a higher authority, God, and that in giving back to the people in my local and global communities through medicine, surgical missions, and beyond, I am serving him, and, in doing so, I have become a better person. Regardless of your beliefs, I think we must all serve a higher purpose: philanthropy is a surefire way to serve a greater good.
If you don’t know how to get started or are seeking inspiration, type in “#GivingBack” (the namesake of this editorial) into Twitter and see on a daily basis how people from all walks of life are giving back. People from schools to churches, from police departments to the National Football League, from plastic surgeons to the U.S. Armed Services are actively engaging in philanthropy every day.
We must heed the example of Mahatma Gandhi, another one of my favorite life role models, who epitomized selfless service to others his entire life. We can learn to give back to our specialty, to our patients, and to our communities each and every day. If you live by that model, the person who will benefit the most is you! Plastic surgeons are naturally poised to be leaders in medicine, and even more so in the philanthropic arena. I always attempt to give back or do at least one selfless thing each day—no matter how small or large it may be! Without a doubt, giving back will make you and those around you better!
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
1. The Plastic Surgery Foundation (Web site). Available at: http://www.thepsf.org
. Accessed October 31, 2016.
4. Yao CA, Swanson J, McCullough M. The medical mission and modern core competency training: A 10-year follow-up of resident experiences in global plastic surgery. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;138:531e538e.
5. Fayyaz GQ, Gill NA, Ishaq I, et al. A model humanitarian cleft mission: 312 cleft surgeries in 7 days. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open 2015;3:e313.
6. Yao CA, Swanson J, Chanson D. Barriers to reconstructive surgery in low- and middle-income countries: A cross-sectional study of 453 cleft lip and cleft palate patients in Vietnam. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;138:887e895e.
7. Kling RR, Taub PJ, Ye X. Oral clefting in China over the last decade: 205,679 patients. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open 2015;2:e236.