What's in a name? Nothing — at least compared to what's in a face.
That's the opinion of Dr. John H. Barker, M.D., Ph.D., a plastic surgeon at the University of Louisville.
Dr. John H. Barker
"A name can be changed easily," he says. "But a face, that is one of the most intimate parts of your being."
Dr. Barker spends a lot of time contemplating faces. The founder and director of the University's Plastic Surgery Research Laboratories and his team have worked around-the-clock for several years to pioneer a groundbreaking procedure: face transplants. Designed to aid the extremely disfigured — mostly victims of severe burns or horrendous accidents — the operation involves removing the face from a cadaver and transferring it to a living patient.
Dr. Barker has become used to stepping out of the lab and into the spotlight.
Although over the years his research has led to five new surgical treatments, he first attracted mainstream media attention when his team pioneered a drug cocktail that led to the world's first hand transplant in 1998. And although hedoesn't practice clinically, all of his research focuses on treatments that "will have a direct impact on patients."
He has dedicated much of his professional and private life to "trying to make a difference."
Outside of his work, he has instituted several programs that provide humanitarian assistance in Latin America.
Shrugs off controversy
As for the ongoing controversy surrounding face transplants, Dr. Barker shrugs it off.
"All new surgical procedures get criticized," he says.
That's why Dr. Barker takes his message on the road. From large professional conferences to small college and primary school classrooms, he acknowledges the concerns of his critics. Yes, there may be complications with the anti-rejection drugs, but they are the same complications experienced by tens of thousands of kidney transplant recipients who are receiving the same medications, he says. And, of course, there will be many psychosocial risks when the face of one person is transferred to another.
"But we believe, and the results of our research demonstrate, that the benefits are much greater than the risks," he says. "Just ask someone who has lived with an extremely disfigured face for years."
Dr. Barker stresses that face transplantation is not cosmetic surgery, adding that the proliferation of reality makeover shows on TV does more to harm efforts than to promote them.
"We have been asked to appear on one of these programs," he says. "This would only have destroyed all the efforts we've made to educate the public."
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Dr. Barker always knew that he would join the "family business."
"My father and my grandfather were doctors. I didn't know you could do anything else for a living," he says. "Maybe if I had known, I would have been an architect," he jokes, citing his passion for remodeling the large, old Victorian house he shares with his wife, Vera, a plastic surgeon, and their toddler son and infant daughter.
And although he didn't anticipate a career in research, he recalls where the seeds were first sown.
"Oh, I was always entering projects in science fairs," he says. "In one of my first science fair projects,I transplanted tails and legs in rats and cheek pouches in hamsters."