Dr. Joseph G. McCarthy: Shaping New Lives, Buoying Human Spirits
Although everyone knows that physicians and dentists are (in)famous for invoking the first-person plural with their patients, as in “we must open our mouths, we need to consider the possibilities, etc.,” there probably aren’t many medical professionals, ?specially award-winning practitioners and researchers at the top of their field, who really mean “we”Ñwho, like Dr. Joseph G. McCarthy, the Director of the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery at NYU, declares, “I never say ‘I,’” and then goes on to talk about the “team” that does the job. But what a job it is for him— performing complicated surgery, which can take up to 10-12 hours, administering the Institute’s educational activities, particularly in craniofacial surgery, carrying out complex NIH and foundation-funded research, tending to his duties as visiting surgeon/director at four major hospitals, in addition to NYU, serving on editorial boards of major journals and on the Board of the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction and The Smile Train. Not to mention the stream of books, articles, lectures, videos. Dr. McCarthy, who holds an A.B. from Harvard and an M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, is the general editor of the 8-volume text, Plastic Surgery and his latest book, Distraction of the Craniofacial Skeleton, describing a breakthrough technique and device (now patented), for lengthening mandibular bone to allow for new bone growth, won recognition for “revolutionizing the field.” His bio is endless, but it is significant that among all the honors—including being given the Pioneer Surgeon Award by the University of Zurich in 2003, he has also been celebrated as Best Teacher at NYU and also Father of the Year.
These wider votes of appreciation reflect Dr. McCarthy’s strong belief that specialists should be broadly educated and open to new ideas, which means seeing their discipline in an interdisciplinary light. He believes that U.S.-trained plastic surgeons can now claim world leadership in this regard, at the same time that training has been accelerated, accomplishing in 6 years what used to take 8. Such efficiency in so complex a field, bespeaks, of course, excellence in administration as well as performance. With modesty, the soft-spoken world-famous surgeon and teacher says that recent education efforts at NYU, including sophisticated computer simulation, at both the resident and post-resident levels, has resulted in the University’s having the “biggest” plastic surgery program in the country.
While acknowledging that seemingly frivolous pursuits often prompt beauty-obsessed people to seek elective surgery, and admitting that a venal image is emerging of the practitioners—a new trash-TV series about two hustler plastic surgeons is due in the fall (“drives me crazy”)—Dr. McCarthy says he bears in mind how people see themselves, as opposed to how others see them. His own work takes aesthetics into account to the degree that appearance reflects anatomical, functional and therefore social disturbances. He concentrates on the seriously deformed, those who, whether from genetic, congenital or accidental causes are badly disfigured. His patients range from neo-natal to 80, with the average age being 19. Many are young children, age 4-5, when deformity has begun to breed depression and despair.
Although cleft lip or palate is a common disorder (one in 500), the patients to whom Dr. McCarthy ministers, along with his team of neurosurgeons, orthodontists, psychologists, ophthalmologists, social workers, geneticists, and most important, nurse clinicians, who are on the front line with families, are those with the extensive pathologies that may involve damage to the brain, ears, eyes, air passages. The incidence of such craniofacial disorders is frighteningly not uncommon. But, he notes, success rates are increasing. He feels pleased to be part of an old tradition about treating such injuries and shows off an office plaque that contains the mission statement of a 16th century Italian plastic surgeon, Gaspari Tagliacozzi, “We restore, repair, and make whole those parts . . . which nature has given but which fortune has taken away, not so much that they may delight the eye but that they may buoy up the spirit and help the mind of the afflicted.”#