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Robert Goldwyn: A Model for Plastic Surgeons

Robert Goldwyn (1930–2010)

As a person who’s read my blog to this point (and I want to thank you if you have!) probably knows that I love to write. In another life, I once dream to be a rambling writer/poet not unlike Jack Kerouac. I certainly had romantic visions of the peripatetic life love exploring the unknown and sharing it all through my writings. But I ended up as plastic and reconstructive surgeon with a specialization in hand surgery, and frankly, it hasn’t been all that bad a compromise.

Being a doctor, from my perspective, is one of the great privileges that can be afforded to a human being. I can think of no other profession that is as universal, having the potential to truly help people in their time of need every single day. It is a unique gift, and it’s certainly one that I treasure. I am humbled by the trust that people invest in me by allowing me to actually enter their body and try to fix what’s wrong with them. And when you can actually make somebody better by providing them a cure, there are few feelings in life that are much better than that.

Surgery relies on mentors to allow this process to survive and flourish through each successive generation. Some mentors can be more traditional sense that they are with you teaching you the actual craft and all of its beautiful and endless nuances. I have had those, and I cherish their tutelage.

Other mentors, like Robert Goldwyn, are not so immediate, but through their writing which is honest and direct, full of penetrating insight about not only the craft of surgery but human psychology and the human condition, provide a great resource for all surgeons, young and old alike.

Because I loved to read and write, I took an immediate interest in reading Robert Goldwyn’s editorials in Plastic and Reconstructive surgery, the hallmark journal of our field. Dr. Goldwyn, who was the editor of the journal for 25 years between 1979-2004, was an accomplished surgeon who made great contributions in the field plastic surgery especially in breast surgery where he developed operations for breast reductions which are the standard for all surgeons.

But his greatest gift, in my view, and perhaps I am biased because I love to read and write so much, is his ability to write. Instead of taking a high toned approach in his editorials, Dr. Goldwyn wrote directly, often with self-effacing humor, revealing some very profound truths about both surgeons and patients. He was often able to undress some of the illusions that both surgeons and patients often unconsciously create in their interactions, and by using humor, his tone was neither adversarial or pedantic, which made a clear path for his ultimate message.

I did not know Robert Goldwyn. I had only ridden next to him one time on the van ride from the airport to the hotel that I was staying at. He was very friendly and conversational and he asked me many questions about what I was doing as a young surgeon. His enthusiasm was apparent, not only about plastic surgery either. As I rode with him, he gazed out the window making frequent comments he observed about the landscape, noting he had never been in this place before, and he was curious about it as well as the people who lived there.

On March 23, 2010, Robert Goldwyn died at the age of 79. He was a humanitarian and really a classic model of what a doctor should be. He was a great surgeon, to give back to his field, he was creative, he was friendly, and by all accounts he was a true gentleman.

It has been a year since his passing, and of course, his shoes will never be quite fully filled again by another. But I thought I would share my thoughts about him.

Of note, the world of medicine is a very small place. Dr. John Grover-a contributor on this blog- was a classmate of Robert Goldwyn’s at Harvard medical school. When Dr. Goldwyn died, Dr. Grover gave me a copy of a book that he had written in retirement: Retired not Dead–the irony is of course obvious.

I really enjoyed those series of essays. They are treasure trove of thoughts and ideas, and really they have served as an inspiration for what I do on this blog. My mission with this blog is to inform, teach, entertain, share, and learn myself!

After all, one of the most important, and really wonderful truths about medicine is that,as doctors, we learn the most not from books, but from the interactions with patients that we have on a daily basis. I think we can also expand that statement, a bit, and also say that that we learn for our mentors as well, and mentor, I define in a very broad sense, as though who will express themselves to us honestly, as Dr. Goldwyn and our patients do.

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