Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pioneering Surgeon Found A Way to Rebuild Faces

This is one of those simply amazing stories that illustrate the best that human beings can be and do.

Operating where few surgeons dared, Paul Tessier forged a medical specialty dedicated to giving his severely deformed and injured patients new faces.

New faces. I can still remember when Dr. Christian Barnard performed one of the first heart transplants; over time, such procedures became socially commonplace, even if not so medically. Other wonders followed: digit reattachments, coronary bypasses, liver transplants, artifical hearts. But a new face?

Using innovative procedures and teams of specialists, he pioneered such techniques as going through the brain cavity to work on the face from behind, sometimes repositioning eye sockets and grafting bones.


"He was the first one who had the gumption to do it when we shied away from it," says Donald Wood-Smith, chairman of the plastic-surgery department at the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary. "Now, we do it with impunity and don't think twice about it."

They might not think twice about it, but I am flabbergasted, amazed, awed.

Frustrated at the limited treatment available to his most severely affected patients, he began experimenting on cadavers after work, investigating the complex bone structure of the face, which he learned to cut and reassemble like a jigsaw puzzle. Moving eye sockets meant he could fix congenital face asymmetry, a problem many victims say leaves them shunned by society.

Truly a pioneer.

As word of his successes spread, young surgeons flocked to his operating theater and Dr. Tessier traveled abroad to lecture to doctors. Because sophisticated viewing systems such as magnetic resonance imaging weren't available, he turned to Michel Bourbon, a French sculptor, to prepare skulls showing malformations, interventions and results.

Medical art.

His habitual answer to a challenge -- "Pourquoi pas?," French for "Why not?" -- became the International Society of Craniofacial Surgery's motto.

Indeed, why not?

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