Dr. Maria Siemionow's white Lewis rats — looking like furry cat burglars — sported brown facial masks, scalp and ears successfully transplanted from their brown Norway counterparts. As the first physician to receive IRB approval to perform a full human facial transplant, her extraordinary research is as singular as its implications are incalculable.
As head of the Cleveland Clinic's Section on Plastic Surgery Research, Dr. Siemionow's work and that of her plastic surgery colleagues, holds potential far beyond organ and tissue transplant recipients — as if that were not boon enough. It may also apply to the wider world of the congenitally, acquired and chemically immunosuppressed — from those grappling with AIDS to chemotherapy patients.Certainly, hers was testimony to the clout of world-class research. But more, it was a reminder that, unlike virtually any other medical specialty, plastic surgery brings to other subspecialties the rich harvest of its inveterate inventiveness and constant discovery.
Through personal immersion in almost every anatomical system, the plastic surgeon heuristically explores, making breakthroughs and garnering insights from which the entire medical spectrum benefits.
Dr. Siemionow epitomizes the incremental deliberation of the classic researcher — positing and proving, then extrapolating those results to arrive at the next refinement of her hypothesis. Yet the philosophical underpinning of her AACS presentation, entitled "Until They Have Faces," touches the essence of what it means to be human.
Her final slide was that of a 21-year-old Afghani woman. She was, quite literally, faceless — and as such, genderless, ageless, indeed— barely distinguishable as a human being. This context roots Dr. Siemionow's premise. Other disciplines may mend, they may palliate — may even help prolong life. But it seems that the plastic surgeon alone may yet wield the power to give back to a fellow human his very identity.
This reminder of what you uniquely bring to your medical peers and to the lives of your patients underscores the power of skills that — in their reverberation — may enlarge and enrich so many more.