I clearly remember the moment that led to my becoming a plastic surgeon. I was about twelve years old, flying along on my bike and feeling very happy with the world, when I hit a bump on the road. I flew over the handle-bars and landed face-down on the road, skidding along until my forehead, nose and lips were tattooed with bluestone.
When I heard that I needed plastic surgery, I was pretty excited. I thought it meant I was getting plastic skin. What twelve year old boy wouldn’t want a bionic face? I proudly told everyone, until eventually someone told me that the world plastic comes from ‘to mould’, hence plastic surgery. I wasn’t getting plastic skin at all. My interest cooled. But it was an intriguing and early introduction into the importance of the face. Would anyone have bothered if I’d tattooed my leg? I don’t think so.
I learned what being a good doctor means from watching my father. A general practitioner in a poor suburb of Melbourne, he listened kindly to every one of his patients during long working days. Everyone was an equal, and a homeless or addicted person would get the very best dad could give, just the same as the local factory owner. What I noticed was that people always felt better after seeing him. It was his kindness and humour and the way he made everyone feel safe and cared for. He knew that a respectful and caring bedside manner could work wonders and in his day, sometimes that was all the treatment there was. He was greatly loved.
So I think I was always going to be a doctor! I took advice from a surgeon friend of dad’s: ‘Train with the best. Always look for excellence.’ Another doctor urged me to study at the Mayo Clinic in America, as he had done and, with his considerable help, that’s what I did. It was seen as a bold step at the time, as Australian doctors traditionally looked to Britain, but the culture of the Mayo Clinic and its dedication to patient care and medical excellence was the best training I could ever have received.
In my practice every day, I bring together dad’s wonderful interest in people with the care and commitment to surgical excellence of the Mayo Clinic. As I specialise in aesthetic facial surgery, both of these aspects are, in fact, a natural requirement for what I do. That’s because aesthetic facial surgery involves the patient’s psychology and emotion; it’s about how we feel inside as much as how we look outside. As the human face is key to our sense of identity, talking to patients and getting to know each other is critical. This makes it quite different to other surgical specialties and it’s part of what makes plastic surgery so interesting to me.
I spend a lot of time with every patient, listening to their story, really getting to know them. Why have they chosen to have surgery? What really are they hoping to achieve? What can I do for them? Several of these stories are in described in my recently published book ‘In Your Face: The hidden history of plastic surgery and why looks matter’. After the surgery, every patient receives an extensive after-care programme designed to look after their emotional and physical wellbeing through to their return to daily life. By the end of that time, we know each other very well. When people write of their appreciation, and how the surgery gave them confidence and insight, then I feel enormous satisfaction.
Over the years I have become known for my research into facial anatomy and facial ageing. In 2015 my research was included in the classic anatomy textbook Gray’s Anatomy (first published in 1858). I began researching the face because I wanted to achieve better results for my patients – better than I had been trained to expect, even though that was the best at the time. But we were applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach of simply pulling the skin and I knew we could improve upon that.
I have spent thousands of hours in research and anatomy laboratories around the world, and prepared hundreds of scientific publications and presentations. My work has become well known because it led to better techniques, based on what actually happens inside the face as we age. In the past we didn’t know that. For the patient, this means an individualised surgical approach with natural results that last decades into the future and slow the rate of future ageing. It is ‘undetectable’ surgery, which in my experience, is what people want. This is the reason I am invited to perform live surgery around the world, to demonstrate the technique.
What do I do in my spare time? There’s not much! Ideally, I’d spend even more time researching the human face – like any exploration it’s the thrill of investigating, of asking different questions and looking with new eyes. And the ultimate thrill is seeing something for the first time. The human face may have been around a long time, but there is so much more to learn about it. I feel we’re only at the very beginning.