American Society of Plastic Surgeons
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Faculty Focus: Q&A with Michael Klebuc, MD

In this installment of Faculty Focus, we present ASPS member Michael Klebuc, MD, associate professor of Clinical Plastic Surgery at Houston Methodist Institute for Reconstructive Surgery, Weill Cornell Medical College.

After finishing medical school at the University of Saskatchewan School of Medicine, Dr. Klebuc completed his general and plastic surgery residencies at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, and a clinical Fellowship in pediatric microsurgery at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, as well as a research Fellowship at Baylor. His focus is devoted to facial plastic surgery, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery, and microvascular surgery. Dr. Klebuc's path easily could've been different – he interned with groundbreaking heart specialist Michael E. DeBakey, but many of plastic surgery's inherent elements proved too strong to resist. Dr. Klebuc, the current American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery vice president, found time away from his busy schedule to answer the following questions for PSR – and provide a useful perspective for plastic surgery residents wishing to expand their grasp of a few non-technical aspects of the specialty.

PSR: What drew you to plastic surgery?

Dr. Klebuc: Initially, I wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon. However, during a summer research project I came to see how the field was restricted to a rather limited number of procedures. As an undergrad, I pursued a degree in anatomy but also had an interest in art and sculpture – and, at one point, I even seriously considered a career in art history. In medical school, I had an opportunity to scrub with plastic surgeons – and I was totally hooked. The creative problem-solving, applied anatomy and aesthetic element were right up my alley. Although I wouldn't recommend this, I skipped a lot of lectures to be in the O.R., and I definitely wouldn't have had competitive grades without a classmate sharing her incredible notes – thanks, Leanne. Ultimately, I matched into one of the first combined plastic surgery programs at Baylor College of Medicine, and the rest is history. As fortune would have it, my early interest in CV surgery came in handy, as I was an intern with Michael E. DeBakey, MD, and associates, and the volume of open-heart surgery during the first three years of training was immense.

PSR: How can residents prepare for a competitive Fellowship?

Dr. Klebuc: The best way is to demonstrate sustained interest. Find a faculty member who works in the subspecialty and scrub their cases as much as possible, and definitely pursue a research project in the field. Attend instructional courses and breakout sessions at national meetings, introduce yourself to the presenters and ask questions. Fellowships are a two-way street. Your mentor can provide clinical opportunity and share years of experience; however, you bring youthful energy, new perspectives and a comfort with evolving technologies.

PSR: What impact did the Fellowship have on your career?

Dr. Klebuc: You will obtain a special set of skills, learn subtleties that are hard to convey in publications and build relationships with like-minded individuals who can provide opportunities to showcase your work. I was incredibly fortunate to secure a facial paralysis Fellowship with Ron Zuker, MD, at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He's been an incredible mentor and friend, and we've had the opportunity to travel to many countries, giving combined lectures on the treatment of the paralyzed face. I would encourage anyone who's identified a special interest in an area of plastic surgery to pursue a Fellowship.

PSR: What's the impact of a mentor on the early years of practice?

Dr. Klebuc: There's really no substitute for experience, and during the first five years of practice, having senior associates or a mentor is invaluable. The confidence you feel as chief resident tends to fizzle as you get into the driver's seat and have the only set of hands on the wheel. Bouncing cases off someone who's been there before is beneficial for you and your patients, and it makes the first years of practice more enjoyable. During the early years, you'll cover multiple E.R.s and get consulted on some of the sickest patients in the hospital. These are some of the toughest cases you'll tackle in your career, and a little seasoned advice goes a long way. Even as a senior surgeon, having trusted colleagues willing to share their experience is incredibly valuable. Also, I'd encourage young surgeons to form travel clubs. These types of organizations were once very popular, and I think they should make a resurgence. Essentially, 10-15 plastic surgeons with varied practices and interests have a yearly meeting at a site that has special significance to the organizing member. It's a fantastic way to become exposed to emerging techniques and to share your victories and failures.

PSR: How has your involvement in societies and committees helped your career?

Dr. Klebuc: Joining the American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery (ASRM) was one of the best things I've done in my career. It's an incredible organization filled with talented, creative, hardworking people who are always willing to share their experience. ASRM has become my surgical home, and I've made many long-lasting friendships with surgeons from all over the world. I'm currently serving as the society's vice president. I would encourage all residents with an interest in reconstructive surgery to apply for candidate membership. It's a great organization, the meetings are top-notch and you'll feel welcome. Participation in the ASRM young microsurgeons group is a great way to get involved, meet new colleagues and jumpstart your career.

PSR: What's the most important attribute for a successful resident?

Dr. Klebuc: When it comes to being a successful resident, you just can't beat enthusiasm. If you've matched into a plastic surgery program, then by definition you're bright, dexterous and hardworking. Residents who are truly excited about plastic surgery and come into the O.R. with energy and a sense of adventure really shine.

PSR: How do you balance your time between your professional and personal lives?

Dr. Klebuc: That's a tough one. I tell my residents that factories close for routine maintenance to keep their machinery running smoothly. In the case of surgeons, we're a human asset and shouldn't feel guilty about taking time to maintain our health and wellbeing. Try to have a regular date night with your spouse or significant other. Find a family activity. My family loves skiing and we just took up golf. We play horribly, but it's fun to be together. Try to take special trips with each one of your children. When they're alone with you, the dam will eventually break and you'll be flooded with amazing insight. My two sons and I also try to make dinner every Sunday. It's another wonderful opportunity to bond – and they've really become accomplished in the kitchen.

PSR: What do you enjoy the most about being a plastic surgeon?

Dr. Klebuc: The ability to make transformational changes. It's awe-inspiring.

PSR: What are some of the challenges you regularly encounter in your practice?

Dr. Klebuc: Cumbersome electronic medical records, increased certification and licensure requirements, declining autonomy and decreasing reimbursement are real-world problems all plastic surgeons face. We need to meet the challenges with a combination of adaptability and political engagement.

PSR: How does teaching play a role in your schedule?

Dr. Klebuc: I'm with the residents and medical students every day. It's one of the best parts of my job. Their energy, excitement and challenging questions really help keep things fresh. 

PSR: What advice do you have for plastic surgery residents?

Dr. Klebuc: It's great to have a diverse practice; however, I'd encourage everyone to find a special niche and explore it over the course of your careers. You'll be surprised by the contributions you make. I have three other unrelated pieces of advice: Find a good attorney and to incorporate as a way of protecting your hard-earned money from frivolous lawsuits. For parents, as soon as your children are born, set up a low-fee college savings fund and be disciplined about your contributions, no matter how small. You'll be astounded how it will grow with time and how quickly that little bundle of joy will be asking for the car keys. Finally, keep a "good-book." Set aside all the cards, letters and well-wishes you receive during your career. During challenging times they can be a powerful inspiration.

PSR: How would you complete this sentence? "I knew I wanted to become a plastic surgeon when..."

Dr. Klebuc: I saw a cleft lip repair. It was the closest thing to magic I had ever witnessed.