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Q&A: Plastic Surgeon Who Operated on Himself


nip n' talk Below, CosmeticSurgery.Com News learns what makes Robert Ersek, M.D., a 66-year-old plastic surgeon in Austin, Texas, tick. Dr. Ersek was in the news during August, 2004, when he invited news cameras into his surgical suite and performed liposuction on himself.

Most recently, Dr. Ersek was in the news again, doing live surgery, this time for a British television show, "Plastic Surgery Live," which is airing through the United Kingdom. Satellite trucks were parked in Dr. Ersek's lot for three days, broadcasting the unedited surgery to British viewers in real time, as it happened.

Additionally, the Discovery Health Channel filmed Dr. Ersek for one of its "Before and After" segments while he performed a face lift, a brow lift, chin implant and nose job on a patient who won a plastic surgery contest held by an Austin radio station. Moreover, the doctor is often seen on the MTV segment, "I Want a Famous Face."

Despite seeming something like a surgical reincarnation of P.T. Barnum, Dr. Ersek is a clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at Southwest Texas State University and an instructor at the University of Texas. Moreover, as a member of Austin Smiles, he often visits remote nations to donate plastic surgery for the poor.



QUESTON: CosmeticSurgery.Com: Abraham Lincoln once observed a lawyer who represents himself having a fool for a client. What does that make a surgeon who operates on himself?

ANSWER: Dr. Ersek: Brilliant!

Q: So why perform liposuction on yourself?

A: Actually, I was only taking a sample of my own fat to freeze in case I needed some for a medical procedure in the future.

nip n' talk Q: Are you kidding? Aren't you really pushing liposuction?

A: No, I had four other surgeons in the room - including Dr. Yves Gerard Illouz, the French physician who invented liposuction -- and took less than a pound of fat cells from my left side for freezing. My only concern about liposuction was I only wanted to show how safe and simple the procedure really is.

Q: If you were only taking a sample, what were the news cameras and other media doing there?

A: It started when I announced I was going to do a live liposuction demonstration at The Lipoplasty University.

Q: The Lipoplasty University? Could that be something you started? (EDITOR'S NOTE: "Lipoplasty" is the medical term for liposuction.)

A: No, it was started by Dr. Ilouz and we have provosts in 26 nations. But I'm the dean here! The university also sells my six books as well as holding the occasional Texas Barbeque with longhorns as big as trucks.

Q: Well, why are you pushing liposuction?

A: I'm not pushing liposuction - I'm pushing the saving and storing of adult stem cells. The cells may be someday used to treat conditions like Parkinson's disease, heart attacks, heart failure, bone disease and god knows what else.

Q: And you get these cells via liposuction?

A: Sure. Liposuction of the waist. Anyhow, I had been thinking for a long time about storing some of my own stem cells. My staff called the local paper to tell them about the liposuction demonstration and the reporter asked if Dr. Ersek was going to store his own stem cells, too. And that stopped me in my tracks.

Q: Why?

A: I know cryogenics. I started a commercial sperm bank years ago; I froze my grandchildren's umbilical cords for future medical use; the company stored Lance Armstrong's sperm in case he wants children. Doing myself wasn't my original plan but it seemed like a good idea at the time. So I told them to tell the reporter I was going to do the procedure on myself to boot.

Q: Did the reporter believe you?

A: Yes. She wrote it almost as a joke. And then, the three local T.V. stations caught wind of it, called and demanded to be there. Demanded, mind you! And, shy guy that I am (chuckling) I, of course, reluctantly agreed.

Q: What happened during the operation? And how many people total were there?

A: Two newspaper reporters, three T.V. crews, four physicians, my own staff and my usual list of everybody else. Nonetheless, it was all very safe. I just numbed up the skin near my navel, slipped in the liposuction wand and moved in back and forth until it had taken out about half a pound of fat.

Q: Did that make you skinny?

A: Hardly, I'm five-foot-six, weighed 200 pounds at the start and maybe tipped the scales at 198 when we finished.

Q: What kind of reaction did it get? From your patients and from the professional societies?

A: My patients, colleagues and close friends loved it. However, the ethics committee of the local plastic society professional society wrote me a letter of rebuke and called me on the carpet for treating myself. I carefully explained I was not really treating myself but collecting stem cells, had four other qualified surgeons in the room and, O.K., I won't do it any more.

nip n' talk Q: Did all the hullabaloo result in any good things for stem cell research?

A: Sure, I now have about four million viable cells on ice and the next patient in the demonstration now has 20 million cells stored. Each time the cryogenic company freezes and stores a patient's stem cells, a portion goes to research. So I'm offering a new service to my lipoplasty patients. Through my good offices, they can store their own stem cells which, until now, have gone to waste. Yearly, this nation throws away a trainload of valuable stem cells.

Q: What other type of media adventures are we likely to see next from the rich imagination of the good Dr. Ersek?

A: As you may know, plastic surgery is also big in the United Kingdom. The Brits have a popular, new show, "Cosmetic Surgery, Live" that televises plastic surgery as it happens, live and unedited.

Q: Wait, let me guess. Shy guy that you are, you volunteered to go on live television and operate on somebody?

A: And how! For three days, with satellite trucks in my parking lot, British crews stood nearby filming while I operated. I did a pectoral implant, a breast augmentation and a major liposuction case for their cameras.

Q: There are many plastic surgeons in the U.S. Why you?

A: Well, they know me the best for reasons I'll explain in a minute. But, the partial answer is, I built a special operating room with special, even lighting and an extra entrance that makes it very easy for any film crew to shoot excellent footage. The brightness is an even 10,000 foot candles and the room has color corrected lighting at 5300 degrees Kelvin.

Q: What other film crews have been in your film friendly operating room?

A: I've been on the Discovery many times and I recently helped a young woman for the MTV program about plastic surgery, "I Want a Famous Face."

Q: Who did the patient want to resemble?

A: Jennifer Anston. She already resembled the actress somewhat so I didn't have to do a lot of work. I'll soon have a patient who will bear a very strong resemblance to Ricky Martin

Q: Getting back to your appearance on live television, in Britain. Did you know the leading professional society is very upset with you?

A: No, I haven't heard a thing about it. I know most of those fellows and wouldn't do anything to upset them.

Q: Well, here's what the newspapers in England report: Adam Searle, president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, says: "I'm appalled at the voyeuristic extravaganza of Cosmetic Surgery Live and condemn it utterly as entertainment. The show...does not portray the real world of plastic surgery...and shows it as an extension of the beauty salon." Your response?

A: I would love to engage that gentleman in a polite, genteel debate; believe it or not, shy guy that I am, I don't mind a little controversy. Of course, plastic surgery is an extension of the beauty salon. We surgeons are, after all, selling beauty and hope. As for entertainment, why not? I've already been in debates about how, and even if, we surgeons should cooperate with all the T.V. shows about plastic surgery.

Q: Well, what's your opinion of the plastic surgery television shows?

A: I think programs like "The Swan" and "Extreme Makeover" are terrific. What better drama could you have than showing how an ugly ducking suddenly has a changed, more normal life? What really counts at the end of the day is how lives are affected by plastic surgery. Sure, it's interesting to talk about taking two inches off a huge nose but when that person goes from being an outcast who is laughed at by children and growled at by animals, to a more normal person with self-confidence, now you really have something. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said: "If you want to educate, first entertain."

Q: You said earlier there are other reasons British television and other film companies come to you. What are they?

A: In 1994, I had an out of work computer engineer as a patient. He told me about this new thing called the Internet. Back in '94, there were two places - the Mayo Clinic and the University of Iowa - where you could read about plastic surgery via the Internet. But neither had any pictures. When I started my practice in the 1970s, I had every patient sign a release on their before and after pictures. I really didn't understand what this Internet thing was all about, but I told him to go ahead and do whatever was required. About 70 percent of my motivation was helping the guy.

Q: What happened then?

A: I filed hundreds of pictures on my website (http://www.ersek.com) and all the search engines listed my site at the top when content alone would land you a listing at the top. That went on for about seven years and is how all the television stations found me. And, shy guy that I am, just a humble worker serving the Lord's interest in God's vineyard, I cooperated with each and every reporter from every media. Since, my website has been revised five or six times.

Q: What else have you contributed?

A: I hold patents or patent pending on 34 medical inventions, including the first intravascular heart stent in 1970. Some are used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. I get 8,000 emails a week from all over the world. Unfortunately, I don't have time to respond to most.

Q: Our final question, doctor: we mentioned at the beginning how Abraham Lincoln characterized a lawyer who represented himself in court. But now that you've had a chance to think about it, what, or who, is a surgeon who operates on himself?

A: As long as the operation is being safely filmed - it makes him an actor, director and cinematographer as well as surgeon........but I don't recommend it.

Q: Thank you for your time, doctor.

A: Thank you!



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