What is Plastic Surgery?

An essay written by Tammy Wu, MD -
Board Certified Plastic Surgeon practicing in Modesto, California, USA

Dr. Tammy Wu's website:  Plastic Surgery Modesto

Picture of Dr. Tammy Wu and Dr. Calvin Lee - Surgical Artistry, Inc., Providing Plastic Surgery to Modesto, CA

What does Plastic Surgery mean to a Plastic Surgeon? 
Early experiences that influenced me to make Plastic Surgery my life.

Many people have asked me, “What is Plastic Surgery? And why is it called ‘plastic’”?

I had the same question myself when I became interested in plastic surgery as a fourth year medical student at Brown University. I had scrubbed in (it’s a surgical term meaning “participated in”) some plastic surgery procedures, including surgical treatment of burn victims, reconstruction of a motocyclist’s arm, which had been rendered useless due to car accident, reshaping of an infant’s head because he was born with a “triangular-shaped” head, and breast reconstruction, and removal of skin cancers and reconstruction of the defect from the cancer extirpation.

Each one of these procedures fascinated me. What intrigued me the most was how diversified and seemingly different each one of these procedures was. For instance, with the burn victim, we removed the “burned skin”, cleaned the area, and then placed new skin harvested from another part of his body and sewed them in place. With the motorcyclist’s arm, he had injured some vital muscles in the arm, so that he was not able to bend his elbow. What a team of talented plastic surgeons did was to take a muscle from his inner thigh (called the gracilis muscle) and to place this new muscle in a well-planned strategic place so that the arm would be able to bend.  This was much more involved than the burn victim’s surgery, as it was not a simple harvest and sew like the skin graft. The blood supply to the muscles along with its nerve were carefully isolated so that they could be re-connected appropriately to its new recipient site, artery to artery, vein to vein, and nerve to nerve. The surgery was quite long, but the functional result for the motorcyclist was well worth it.

Another Plastic Surgery experience as a Medical Student.  

We got a phone call from the newborn nursery. I went with my plastic surgery resident at that time to examine the newborn baby. I had never seen anything quite like it. The baby was well and healthy in all aspects. However, his head was quite a strange shape, almost triangular, which made his face seem a bit crunched in certain areas. The resident went to my professor and described what he found, and I learned that the baby was born with some sort of skull deformity, or craniosynostosis, which is a maldevelopment and malformation of the bony skull’s suture lines (where the different pieces of the skull bone come together). We took the baby to the operating room and in cooperation with a neurosurgeon, took the top part of the baby’s skull off, took the skull apart, and did artful carpentry on the skull, reconstructed the parts together, and replaced the skull on the baby’s head. You can imagine my amazement at how “normal” the baby’s skull and face now looked, even right after the surgery. I did not realize such surgeries existed! And this is all “plastic surgery”?!?! Wow, I thought, this is amazing! But my amazement did not end here.

I went on to watch more fascinating surgeries and the transformations that took place. The emotional healing that took place with the completion of breast reconstruction for a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer. The confidence that she exuded walking through the plastic surgeon’s office six weeks after all the surgeries were completed and the smile on her face that lighted the room. She was a completely different person than the one that I met on her first visit after the cancer surgery (mastectomy).  I had not observed such diversity in any other specialties, and I thought, wow, I’d like to be able to be the one offering these services to people to help improve the quality of their lives.

The Greek origin of "Plastic Surgery"

The question surfaced in my head, “why is it called ‘plastic surgery’?”. I went to the library and looked it up in the dictionary and encyclopedia (back in the days before the advent of internet popularity) and found that the word “plastic” came from Greek (surprise surprise… as many people would think of any medical terms – “it’s all Greek to me…”). The Greek word “plastikos” means “to mold and to shape”. Therefore, it started to make sense to me, as a medical student who has watched and participated in many “plastic surgery” procedures, to shape and to mold, and to transform, THIS is what plastic surgery is all about.

- Tammy Wu, MD
Board Certified Plastic Surgeon
Modesto, CA, USA
Essay written on 8/3/09

Visit Part II of What is Plastic Surgery?

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Thank you for visiting our web page on the definition of Plastic Surgery.  This will be part of a series of essays written about the experiences of a Plastic Surgeon, by Dr. Tammy Wu, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon practicing in Modesto, CA.

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Disclaimer:  This website is not intended to create a physician patient relationship.  There is no specific targeted medical advice here.  Please see your physician in person.  This disclaimer also applies to our other websites with generalized information:  Plastic Surgery Modesto CA, Plastic Surgery Modesto, Cosmetic Surgery, Acupuncture Modesto, Veins Modesto, How to Choose a Plastic Surgeon, Breast Augmentation Modesto, Breast Augmentation FAQ, Tummy Tuck FAQ, Botox in Modesto

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