What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “plastic surgery”? For me I always seem to think of Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, and not in a positive way. We’ve all seen the photos of procedures that have gone wrong or of people that have gone a little too far with their “enhancements.” Is that all there is to plastic surgery though—enhancements, liposuction, sculpting and tummy tucks? I sat down with Dr. Barbara Persons of Lafayette to find out and to learn a little bit about the art, science and history of plastic surgery. I am always curious about the path one takes to reach a certain point in life, and I found Dr. Persons’ journey of particular interest. Her journey also sheds light on why she became a plastic surgeon as opposed to any other type of doctor.

Originally from the Lamorinda area of Contra Costa County, Persons originally set her sights on a career in medicine from the tender age of 5 when she thought she wanted to be a nurse. In high school her father had taken ill with a rare form of leukemia, thankfully he was successfully treated, and that experience cemented the idea in her that she wanted to be a doctor and help others. She went to UC San Diego and Dartmouth (where she was a cheerleader) for her undergraduate degree and then on to Medical School at the University of Vermont. If not for a fateful snowy day in Vermont, her life and medical career would have probably been much different as compared to where it is now. That day did happen, though, and her life changed dramatically.

She was 24 years old, a second-year medical student and a passenger in a car driving to meet up with some fellow classmates. They had just finished up their finals prior to the Christmas break, when their car was struck head-on by a semi-truck that was being driven recklessly. To say that she was injured in the crash would be a vast understatement. Her entire face was smashed in and every bone had been broken. Her shoulder blade and collarbone was shattered and her breastbone was broken down the middle. She had to take a year off from school to allow her body to heal and endure 16 surgeries to rebuild her body and face. She was (and is now) a beautiful young woman who was transformed in an instant to what many would call grotesque.

Barbara had the opportunity to learn first-hand how people are treated when they have this type of physical injury or deformity. The world views them completely differently. This had a profound effect on her and the path that she would follow in medicine. Up to that point she had been leaning toward a career as a gynecologist/obstetrician but having her own face reconstructed and the serious effect that it had provided her with the direction that she needed. After medical school she completed her internship at UC Davis and a Public Health Service commitment at a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

In Arizona she started to question if 10 more years of training was something she wanted to do. She was already a doctor and felt that she could still do plenty of good things to help people. While working there she had gone on a Grand Canyon trip and was asked to be the trips medical doctor. While at the bottom of the Canyon one of her fellow travelers received a serious facial wound and she was forced to treat him there on the floor of the canyon far away from any hospital or assistance. She felt that this was yet another sign to keep her on her course.

After her time in Arizona was complete she did her training in general surgery at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and worked there 5 years as a general surgeon. Happenstance would lead her next to the University of Mississippi first as the Chief Resident in General Surgery and then as Chief Resident in Plastic Surgery. She also spent time there training and working in both hand and reconstructive breast surgery.

Three years ago, she was planning to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area already when her mother developed breast cancer, and she felt she wanted to move home to Lafayette, so she did. She opened up a small office, which again through happenstance moved into a larger office with an onsite surgery center in Lafayette.

Dr. Persons performs both cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries and feels strongly about the effect both have on people’s lives. While excessive plastic surgery has become fodder for entertainment news and reality television most people today have some legitimate concern with their physical appearance. Dr. Persons has experienced first-hand the impression that physical beauty, or the lack thereof, has on people and how they treat each other. I myself grew up with a boy that had been horribly burned over his entire body and saw the challenges that he faced integrating back into the mainstream from elementary school on and how very traumatic it was for him. Currently on the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire the character of Richard Harrow deals with a facial disfigurement from an injury suffered in World War I. It is interesting to watch his interaction with others and how he places himself outside of the mainstream due to his disfigurement. Most of us have also seen the television commercials asking for donations to help children suffering from cleft palates in third world countries and I am sure have wondered, as I have, what that must be like. October was just Breast Cancer Awareness Month and reconstructive surgery plays a major role in helping those survivors move forward with their lives and in regaining normalcy as well. These emotional challenges are the issues that Dr. Persons and her colleagues must deal with daily in their profession.

I had has asked her to share her thoughts on what she would say to someone that has not had plastic surgery but is contemplating it. Dr. Persons replied, “God has made us each beautiful but man has gained the knowledge to repair, correct and improve many things and that if something is truly concerning someone to the point that it is effecting their life or causing them to think about it daily they should sit down with a surgeon to see what can be done for them.” She stresses, though, that surgery is not a weight loss tool and should be used to deal with problem areas after the weight loss had occurred and a healthy diet and lifestyle is being maintained.

I was also curious as to what type of surgery seems to give the most satisfaction to the recipients. It was interesting for me to learn that breast reduction surgery seemed to provide the greatest level of satisfaction to her patients. She felt without exception that all the patients she had performed the procedure on had been happy about the outcome.

Always a fan of history, I did a bit of research to discover the origins of Plastic surgery as well. Plastic, as Dr. Persons noted, is from the Greek word Plastikos, which means “To Mold”. The birthplace reconstructive surgery though has been attributed to ancient India. Ancient texts have indicated that reconstructive surgery had been performed there as early as 600 to 800 BC. Often times the procedures were done to repair or replace ears and noses lost due to war or as punishment for crimes. Ancient Egyptians performed many types of surgeries that can correlate with modern plastic surgeries on their dead to prepare and preserve the body for the afterlife. Ancient Romans performed the earliest types of cosmetic plastic surgeries to remove scars and also to repair injuries from the gladiatorial games. Italians in the 16th century, most notably Gasparo Tagliacozzi, improved on many of these ancient procedures and are credited with many advancements in the field. It seems to me that there was a great call for the repairing and replacing of noses and ears in the ancient world and thus even then people placed a tremendous amount of stock in one’s physical appearance. Keep in mind as well that other than opiates they did not enjoy local or general anesthetics during these times. So, to have a “cosmetic” procedure done in ancient times with healthy skin and flesh being removed and reattached must have been quite an ordeal and one must have had incredible desire to have the work done. This then indicates to me that the desire for physical beauty is not a modern one at all and that man has strived for it throughout time. War has provided the largest patient pool and impetus for advancement in the field.

Our own modern engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in far more soldiers who survive catastrophic injuries from the battlefield. Compared to the U.S. Civil War 150 years ago, and even Vietnam 40 years ago, the survival rates of battlefield injuries have risen dramatically. Those injuries, though, oftentimes result in loss of limbs and severe disfigurement for the survivors. This gives rise to opportunities for further advancements as the unfortunate patient pool rises. Doctors such as Dr. Persons must help these tragically injured veterans, just like the character of Richard Darrow from Boardwalk Empire, to return to the civilian world with some degree of normalcy to their lives. Keep all of these things in mind next time you consider the role of a “Plastic Surgeon” in our modern society and how these “cosmetic” procedures are helping to heal far more than a person’s body but their soul as well.

If you would like to learn more about how Dr. Persons might be of help to you please call her office at 800-BEAUTY-6. You would be surprised how much more there is than just tummy tucks.

Robert Briseño – Is a father of three little ones who finds constant joy when they dance & sing but not so much when they bump their little heads…hopefully they will not need any reconstructive surgery.