Updated: Jul 15
Trying to figure out what kind of doctor you should become? Wondering which specialty you should choose? Then SheMD's Why Specialty Series is perfect for you! We're bringing you female physicians sharing WHY they chose their specialty. Today's post is on why Dr. Kristen A. Aliano Messina chose plastic surgery and why it is a great field.
I was 10 years old and had just returned home from summer camp in the Hamptons. My father informed me that while I was gone, the decision was made to postpone our upcoming family vacation. His mother, my grandmother, unexpectedly needed to have major surgery. At the time, she was 79 years old; her recurrent oral cancer had once again returned, necessitating tumor extirpation and reconstruction.
My grandmother had been first diagnosed with oral cancer in 1950, before my father was born. She became a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center almost immediately. Her first surgery occurred while she was pregnant with my father, her third child. During the procedure, there were some anesthetic complications potentially affecting the well-being of my father. The surgical team called in a maternal-fetal medicine team, a relatively new concept, from Weill Cornell across the street, and they were able to save him. His relatives often called him the “miracle baby”.
Throughout my grandmother’s adult life, she battled recurrent oral cancer and was a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for over 50 years. Her tumor typically returned every 5-10 years. She had had multiple ablations, neck dissections, and small reconstructions. However, the treatment plan for her surgery in the summer of 1995 was a little different.
It was determined that my grandmother would need reconstruction with a free flap. One of the world’s leading microsurgeons would perform the procedure. After her surgery, we visited her frequently in the hospital.
I was amazed that the surgeons were able to take tissue from her forearm and use it to reconstruct the defect in her mouth, and then take a skin graft from her thigh to close the arm wound. I know now that she had a radial forearm free flap.
Over the next few months, I watched intently as she recovered from her surgery, and underwent speech and swallow therapy. Eventually, it became easy to forget that she had underwent such a procedure because her functioning returned to normal. However, the situation piqued my interest.
As I got older, I realized that medicine might be my calling. I loved biology; it came very naturally to me, and I love working with people. As I graduated high school, I was determined to become a surgeon. I liked the idea that surgery enables a problem to be instantaneously fixed.
When I was in college at Cornell University, I did a winter externship in which I was assigned to shadow a plastic surgeon on my native Long Island. I loved the variety of patients in his office; some were teenagers, some were elderly, and some were young or middle-aged adults. I also enjoyed that each patient had a different issue or concern. One patient suffered from macromastia and wanted a breast reduction, a gentleman had a small skin cancer on his face, and an older woman was interested in a facelift.
It was then I realized that in plastic surgery, there are multiple ways of approaching an issue. Unlike in general surgery where they may only be one right answer to approaching a problem, there are a variety of options to treat plastic surgical issues. Given all of my personal and clinical experiences, I decided right there and then that I wanted to become a plastic surgeon.
In plastic surgery, we improve patients’ quality of life. We can make the lives saved by trauma teams more livable. We enable patients to look and feel their best. It is extremely rewarding. The joy on patients’ faces when they see themselves in the mirror for the first time after a non-surgical or surgical procedure is extremely validating for me.
After medical school, 6 years of clinical training, and an additional 2 years of research spaced in between my first and second clinical years of training, I am now a plastic surgeon in private practice just outside of Dallas. My areas of interest include aesthetic surgery of the breast and body, non-surgical facial rejuvenation, and hair restoration.
The road to this point was challenging and long, but well-worth it.
Along the way, I had some disappointments and challenging experiences, but I do not regret them. They made me a stronger person, and in my opinion, a better doctor.
It is possible to do anything one puts one's mind to!
It is extremely gratifying. I feel very blessed to do what I do, and I would not have changed a thing.