President's Pod: Get to know ASPS President Joseph Losee, MD
The following is an edited transcript of the first edition of the "President's Pod," a new podcast where ASPS President Joseph Losee, MD, takes member questions on a given topic. The introductory episode, recorded in January, took the theme of "This is Me," with moderators Ash Patel, MBChB, and Michelle Roughton, MD, and other ASPS members asking Dr. Losee about his upbringing, career and what makes him tick in the office and away from it. Find the full recording by going to plasticsurgery.org/for-medical-professionals/presidents-pod.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your journey to plastic surgery?
Dr. Losee: I deal with a lot of medical students and they now refer to things as "non-trad," or non-traditional. I'm certainly non-trad. I grew up in upstate New York. Both of my parents were evangelical Christian ministers. My mom taught school and my dad was a carpenter – I grew up in really humble means. I was just destined to go into the ministry. No one in my family went to college. My dad was an ambulance chaser – in our small town, when the fire trucks went by or an ambulance went by, he'd say, "Come on, get in the car," and we'd go and watch. I think that somehow sparked an interest in EMS in me and I became a paramedic.
I went to a small, private Christian school that my parents ran, where I was the valedictorian of a class of two. My senior year, I really didn't go to school – I taught second grade and third grade, so I don't have a high school diploma. That's the God's honest truth. I worked in a private, Christian school during the day, and I worked as a paramedic at night. The docs in the E.R. said, "You ought to go to medical school." I didn't think I was rich enough or smart enough. There was one emergency medicine doc who really was my main mentor and got me into community college, where I did my high school classes. I went to community college, and then transferred to a four-year school. I ended up going to the University of Rochester meeting Joe Serletti, MD – and life changed.
How did growing up in an evangelical Christian household affect your early life?
Dr. Losee: In some ways, it's an amazing way to grow up. I always say that I never drank, smoked or cussed until I met Joe Serletti as a resident. I stayed out of trouble, and the moral compass this kind of upbring provides is, in some ways, just incredible. I grew up in a very black-and-white, "there's right and there's wrong and there's no questions about it" structure – even though deciding what's right and wrong is a whole lot of interpretation.
You know, I came out in the middle of my first year of medical school and half of my friends had thought I was just this conservative, Christian straight kid. They were afraid to talk about family planning around me. When I came out, it floored everybody – including me. I'll just say everyone in my family has evolved, and we all get along very well. My parents live with us for four months out of the year. But there was a really rough patch for a good five years.
In your personal life, what are you most proud of?
Dr. Losee: I think most parents would say their children. Even though my husband, Franklyn, and I really didn't have anything to do with bringing him in the world, our son is the most important thing to me. You usually wait a year or two with adoption agencies, but we waited three months. We found out on a Tuesday that Hudson was coming home; I flew out to give the boards on Wednesday; came back on Sunday and met him for the first time on Monday. He's 11 years old now.
What's the best memory of your professional career?
Dr. Losee: Coming to Pitt in 2003. My husband and I were recruited to the Children's Hospital in 2003 by W.P. Andrew Lee, MD, who, along with Dr. Serletti, is one of the main reasons why I'm here. Andy took a huge risk recruiting me here – I'm not sure I would have done it – and brought me in to develop the Children's Hospital program. J. Peter Rubin, MD, and I were Andy's lieutenants. I did a lot of the administrative and residency stuff, and Peter was insanely successful on the research front. Then Andy was recruited to go to Johns Hopkins to be the department chair, and the dean at Pitt at the time basically decided there wouldn't be a formal search to replace Andy – it would just be either Peter or me as the chair of the new department.
As soon as that happened, Peter and I went in our conference room. We closed the door and made a pact that whoever got that job, the other person would be their No. 1 and support them. Now, I had worked my entire life to be a department chair. My entire career had been focused toward that, and I really thought I was going to get the job because I'd done so much of the administrative work. The process dragged on and on because they had a really hard time deciding. Ultimately, they chose Peter, which at the time, was the worst experience for me.
Andy asked me to go with him to Hopkins, and I'm so glad that I didn't go. Looking back – and I say this with complete sincerity – they made the right choice. The reason why I'm here and the reason why I've been so successful is because of Peter, who has treated me so well and been so supportive. I tell people this every day: He was made for that job, and he's done a much better job than I could have. It allowed me to refocus my career and find something that I'm even more excited about, which is working in the dean's office.
How have you managed to balance being a good father with your professional responsibilities?
Dr. Losee: Wellness is something that I constantly think about in my role as Dean of Faculty. It's immensely personal – what is wellness to me could be torture for another doctor, and vice versa.
First off, I don't believe in work/life balance, but work/life integration. That's the only way to succeed. For the first 10 years of our career, Franklyn and I were in the hospital seven days a week. We loved it. We worked with residents, Fellows and medical students on Saturdays, we'd have lunch together in the cafeteria, I got to actually see my husband. On Sundays, we'd take everybody out to the movies. I wouldn't have changed that for the world. But that wouldn't be wellness for me today.
I was lucky in the sense that I had no commitments. My husband and I were on the same track. We were in the hospital seven days a week, so I got a lot done in that decade and was promoted. Once we brought Hudson home, life changed. That was the year I became a professor. It's not as if I don't work anymore – I still work on Saturdays and Sundays, but I have control over how I integrate work with my family, and I hope I'm doing a good job. I have a lot more control over my schedule now.
What does being ASPS president mean to you? You're essentially the chair of all the committees – how do you find the time to make it all work?
Dr. Losee: This is one of the greatest honors of anybody's professional career, to be sure. But leadership comes with a cost, and you have to be willing and interested in paying that cost of late-night calls, early-morning work and all of that non-reimbursable time, energy and effort. You have to like solving problems – getting an email about this conflict, or this person being unhappy, or this person is going to try to sue you and this person is doing this, etc.
But it's all helping to solve human problems, and that's what plastic surgeons do best. I've always taken some warped pleasure in taking care of other people's problems. It can be fun – you get to do things like this or speak at meetings and travel (when it's permissible) – but you have to like hard work. And you have to differentiate if being on a conference call at 9 p.m. and then getting up at 4 a.m. to answer all the emails about it is wellness to you. If that makes you excited, well then, sign up.
If you could accomplish one thing in your presidency with a wave of the hand for ASPS, what would it be?
Dr. Losee: Plastic surgery as a specialty is one of the smallest specialties out there. We have more subspecialties than probably any other field, which means we're really divided and siloed. Not all of those silos get along, and we don't all work together. We have a lot of infighting, and while we're doing all of that infighting amongst ourselves, dermatologists are doing breast reductions, dentists are doing facelifts and OB/GYNs are doing abdominoplasty. In Europe, we've lost breast reconstruction entirely to the OB/GYNs and in America, general surgeons are putting implants in. So we can all choose to continue fighting amongst ourselves, watch the rest of the fields take over plastic surgery and in 50 years, we'll be irrelevant. There are good universities out there without plastic surgeons at all. Somehow, they survive. ENT does all the facial trauma with oral surgery and they do all the craniofacial stuff. Ortho does all the hand and the lower extremities, and general surgery can do breast reconstruction. So my biggest goal as president is to try to see plastic surgery become a completely unified body once again. We really all need to work together.
If you were stranded on a tropical island somewhere and had all the survival equipment you need, but could only have three other things that you would find indispensable, what would those be?
Dr. Losee: Well, I'd want a global cell phone so I could call for help. I'd want Franklyn and Hudson with me. And then, of course, probably my laptop with Internet connectivity. If I could have four things, I might then ask for a bottle of Beefeater Gin, or a good bottle of Burgundy.
How did you get so far in your career so quickly?
Dr. Losee: Well, it hasn't been so quick – it's been 20-plus years. Andy Lee and Joe Serletti really pushed me forward, opened doors of opportunity and pushed me through. The other thing is saying yes to everything. I know that kind of flies in the face of our current wellness discussions, but again, everybody's idea of wellness and what they can manage is different. It has to make you happy to say yes. "Do you want to be on this committee?" Yes. "Do you want to do this?" Yes. What else can I do? Let me be involved, do what I can do and then work really hard. That's what I tell all our Fellows and residents who are interested in this kind of leadership. For some people, that's just not them, and that's fine.
What makes you lose sleep these days?
Dr. Losee: With what I said earlier about infighting; I'm really anxious that if we don't get our act together, there could be a future where plastic surgery looks different than what we want it to be. Having said that, we just had our resident interviews yesterday, and talk about the absolute best of the best – a two-time Olympic medalist, a CEO who was named in the "30 Under 30" in Forbes, a professional baseball player, a dancer who performed at the Met. We really have the best of the best going into plastic surgery. So to train them to be the innovators and to continue finding and solving new problems is a vehicle for our survival.
Another thing that really bothers me is watching TV today [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded Jan. 6], you know, our country's on fire right now. I don't care who you are, what color you vote or whatever – I don't think anyone can think that we're in a good place right now. It appears as if our standing in the world just fell quite a bit today and that's disheartening to me.
I also worry about the same things that all of you parents out there worry about – what our kids are going to be like, are we doing a good job and so forth.
What do you enjoy outside of being ASPS president and away from work?
Dr. Losee: Having an 11-year-old means most of my free time is trying to be a good dad and just trying to spend time with Hudson. One hobby I have is French wine. I go to Burgundy each year for a week. So spending time with my friends, my mentors and my colleagues, and getting to do fun things with them and my family.