Spring 1995 Mission

Plastic surgery no longer a luxury

By Arturo Vásquez II and Jim Barrett

Brenda Gutierrez can’t thank her plastic surgeon enough. And it’s not because she is a model or movie star who needed a cosmetic lift. No, her infant daughter, Clarissa, was born with a cleft lip and palate, a disfiguring condition in which the upper lip is divided in two.

Baby Clarissa’s natural beauty now shines through thanks to an operation by Gregory Wittpenn, MD, assistant professor of surgery and chairman of the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

“Correcting congenital defects such as cleft lips and cleft palates gives me the chance to help kids and offer them corrections that will help them avoid some of the psychological traumas that can result,” said Dr. Wittpenn, himself the father of three children.

Plastic surgery no longer is a luxury. A new breed of surgeons such as Dr. Wittpenn and his colleague, Jaime R. Garza, MD, DDS, also an assistant professor of surgery, are applying reconstructive surgical techniques to the problems of everyday people.

“The misconception is that plastic surgery has to do with nose jobs and tummy tucks. There are other important areas such as reconstruction to repair congenital defects like Clarissa’s, or to repair the damage done by cancer, or to treat victims of severe trauma,” Dr. Wittpenn said.

Reconstructive surgeons can help more patients than ever before because of new techniques. Dr. Wittpenn cited the growing number of surgical options for women who need breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.

One option involves performing a mastectomy and breast reconstruction at the same time. In the past, surgeons allowed time for recovery and adjustment to a missing breast before a woman had reconstruction, Dr. Wittpenn said.

“What we like to do now,” he said, “is perform the reconstruction at the very same time the surgeon is performing the mastectomy. There are many advantages. The patient doesn’t have to go through a period with a ‘deformity,’ scar tissue doesn’t have a lot of time to set in and the original breast is there and can be measured and weighed so that the reconstructed breast can have the best possible match.”

Dr. Wittpenn also said breast reconstruction can now be done in a variety of ways through implants, or by using muscle tissue and fat from the back, abdomen or buttocks. “I discuss all the options with my patients,” he said, “in order to find out which procedure is best for them.”

Dr. Wittpenn, who became chairman of the plastic and reconstructive surgery division in March 1994, recruited Dr. Garza as the second teaching member in the division. It is the first time the division has had two full-time faculty members. “Dr. Garza’s interests and specialties complement mine perfectly,” he said. Dr. Garza agreed, saying, "This makes us a good team.”

A native of San Antonio remembered as a football star at Thomas Jefferson High School, Dr. Garza also played at Tulane University, where he is a member of the university's Athletic Hall of Fame, and briefly in the National Football League. He completed his plastic surgery training at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

His research interests include reconstruction of sports-related facial injuries and allotransplantation of muscle flaps, a technique that involves the transplantation of tissue between different areas of the body. His clinical interests include maxillofacial surgery and reconstructive microsurgery.

“I made the decision to come back to San Antonio for the opportunity to expand the plastic surgery program,” Dr. Garza said. “It presented the chance of a lifetime.”

Each surgeon sees dozens of patients a week. The doctors work at four teaching sites: University Health Center-Downtown, University Hospital, Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital and the Health Science Center’s Cranial-Facial Clinic.

“Plastic surgery can be needed on any part of the body for a variety of reasons,” Dr. Wittpenn said, “and, therefore, our patients come from all backgrounds, communities, education levels and occupations. We see the wealthy and poor alike.”

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