The Helicopter Crash and the Plastic Surgeon
When you’re looking for someone to do your plastic surgery, choose a board-certified plastic surgeon.
You’re probably thinking that articles about choosing a plastic surgeon make YOU bored-certified.
So scratch that, and let’s talk about a helicopter crash.
Several years ago I volunteered for a medical mission in Central America. I nearly backed out at the thought of leaving my two toddlers, but I was eager to help other mothers’ children, so I went.
Our little cleft lip and cleft palate patients were among the poorest in a poor country, and their surgical options were few. Over the ensuing days, our plastic surgical team worked long, intense hours to complete as many cases as possible in our limited time.
On our last day, our military hosts thanked us by arranging two of their national Navy helicopters to fly us for a day at a private island beach.
Our four pilots met us on the airfield next to the two helicopters. Dressed in their olive drab jumpsuits and helmets, they looked ready for a military mission.
They handed each of us a heavy helmet and motioned us to board.
When we were seated and harnessed, the engine started to whine, and the blades began rotating faster and faster. As the helicopter shook and roared, the ground pulled away.
Thwack, thwack, thwack. We flew over rolling hills.
Thwack, thwack, thwack. We approached the second helicopter and waved at our colleagues.
Thwack, thwack, thwack. Our helicopter drew closer to the other. And closer. Now uncomfortably close.
Was this too close? Should I say something? I hesitated. Maybe I was imagining our danger. After all, these guys were military pilots trained for battle. They knew what they were doing.
Thwack, thwack, thwack. Now we were as close as a dragonfly flirting with a mate.
“YOU’RE TOO CLOSE!” an anesthesiologist shouted at the top of his voice. But the pilots couldn’t hear through their thick helmets over the engine’s roar.
Now I knew I wasn't overreacting. We were about to collide and crash simply because the pilots weren’t paying attention.
“WE’RE TOO CLOSE!” we all shouted.
I gripped my seat waiting for the violence. In a moment I'd know what a helicopter crash was like.
Time slowed down. I wanted to tell my husband I loved him, and I was sorry to leave him.
“Take good care of my babies,” I said silently, like a prayer.
But nothing happened. We'd changed direction. One of the pilots turned around and flashed a broad, sheepish grin.
A short time later one of those helicopters did crash. It had only been a matter of time, and I’d just been lucky.
A patient looking for a plastic surgeon has even fewer clues about competence than I did when judging my pilots. Why? Because any doctor with a license to practice medicine can claim to be a plastic surgeon.
Laws protect the doctor more than they protect the patient.
I could call myself a heart surgeon.
Of course, no hospital would give me privileges to do heart surgery, but cosmetic surgery can be done in private offices with little or no oversight. So any doctor can perform cosmetic surgery.
Determining the Highest Level of Competence
The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) is like the U.S. military. Each specialty requires years of rigorous training and comprehensive qualifying examinations. Board certification indicates competence....in that specified field.
To find a good plastic surgeon, look for someone certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS). Certification by the ABPS represents comprehensive six-to-eight-year training in all aspects of the face, breast, and body.
Sounds straightforward so far. But then the waters get muddy.
A Board by Any Other Name
Remember what I discovered while flying with those Third World Navy pilots? Training matters. That’s why the American Board of Medical Specialties doesn’t recognize boards that don’t train like the U.S. Military.
Some Cosmetic Surgery boards train through weekend courses with instructors who themselves trained through weekend courses. But just as I thought “Navy pilot” sounded just about as good as “U.S. Navy pilot,” terms like “Board-Certified Cosmetic Surgeon” can sound a lot like “Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon.”
Don’t wait until you’re in the air with a poorly trained pilot. Find out the name of your surgeon’s certifying board. Is your “plastic surgeon” actually a general surgeon, a gynecologist, or a family physician?
What Specializing Means
An ENT surgeon (otolaryngologist) sometimes specializes in Facial Plastic Surgery, and an ophthalmologist may specialize in Oculoplastic Surgery. After all, they’re trained in those areas. But sometimes they claim to “specialize” above and beyond the “general plastic surgeons.”
The term “general plastic surgeon” is deceptive, and let me explain why.
I'm licensed to drive a car, and that's the only type of vehicle I drive. So I "specialize" in driving cars.
A truck driver is licensed to drive both cars and trucks. He drives his car to work, and then he drives his truck. Because he's done extra training in truck driving doesn't mean he's less trained to drive a car. He can do both very well.
I could say that the truck driver is a "general driver," and I'm the “car specialist.” But that truck driver can drive a car just as well as I.
The Comprehensive Plastic Surgeon
Board-Certified Plastic Surgeons are more accurately called "Comprehensive Plastic Surgeons." They "specialize" in the eyes, face, breast, and body. After all, they’ve spent years mastering the entire field of plastic surgery, and they’ve passed rigorous exams demonstrating their expertise.
Board-Certified? By Which Board?
A Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon is able to handle complications, is familiar with unusual anatomy, is knowledgeable in the best techniques, and is well trained in patient safety.
I was lucky on my helicopter flight, but luck shouldn’t be part of the equation.
Choose well. It's your body. It's your life.