What I’ve always loved about our career interviews is getting to meet people with very different stories and career paths. Sometimes it’s really nice to step outside of fashion and meet the other types of people who play very different roles in our lives. I’ve always wanted to talk with a doctor because I’m fascinated by all of the schooling that goes into being able to practice. And there’s the fact that we put a huge amount of trust in them with our bodies! That especially goes for Shirley (who just happens to be Stella Jean’s cousin), who is a plastic surgeon here in New York.
She has a different approach to beauty and elective cosmetic surgery that I found to be really inspiring… and an energy that is totally infectious!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City.
New York born and bred?
I was not born in New York. I am actually an immigrant. I was born in Haiti to multicultural parents, and my parents moved to New York with me when I was one.
What was your dream job growing up?
When I was younger my dream was to be a prima ballerina, and I danced ballet since I was 6 or 8, very young, and I danced well into my college years. So for me, for the longest time, I was going to dance on the stage; I was going to be a ballerina. That’s what I dedicated my energy and my time to.
So I put a lot of sweat and tears into that career, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I thought, “Ok I love ballet, but I was not really mentally stimulated.” It is a very beautiful art form, it’s a very physical art form and sometimes psychological. But I wasn’t getting the kind of intellectual stimulation that I personally need to thrive.
When I was younger my dream was to be a prima ballerina… But I wasn’t getting the kind of intellectual stimulation that I personally need to thrive.
So where did medicine come into play?
So I started looking at other ways that I could combine my dance career with something else that would fulfill my appetite for, I don’t know, expertise or trivia – just food for knowledge. And I experimented with a few different things and I finally thought, I love the way the human body works! And I love helping people, so how can I combine dance with helping people and working with the human body, and the answer was medicine. So on my college essays my subject was all about the discipline involved in being a dancing doctor.
But, the more I got into my training and my studies, I recognized that I personally didn’t have the time and the energy to devote to two full career courses that were both very exacting and time consuming and very physically demanding. So I gave up at least professional: ballet dancing, and sort of started doing it more for fun and as a hobby. And I devoted all of my time and energy into becoming a doctor.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a secretary, she worked in various jobs, as an administrative assistant. My father’s a banker. And a lot of my family members are engineers. So when I was younger I remember there being talk of my going into engineering. My family all thought that I was crazy because of the time it took to study, to finally get that medical degree, and then more time it took to finally practice, and then more time to actually make a living and so they all thought I was nuts. But I did it anyways.
What is the education process for becoming a doctor and getting your medical degree? You went to undergrad in Boston right?
I went to undergrad in Boston University. And it’s not required but I had a double major and a French Literature minor.
So after four years of college you apply to med school and I did a combined program at Dartmouth and Brown. So half the time I was at Dartmouth in New Hampshire and the other half, my clinical years, with all the hospitals I was in the Brown University system.
Once I was about to finish at Brown, I had a little bit of a career conundrum because I thought, as I had told you, that I was going to do something with dancing. And because I love children, I thought I could be a dancing doctor in the pediatric ward. But once I actually got to do the rotation I recognized that I didn’t really have the talent necessary to care for not only the patient who could not give me information – “How are you Suzy?” “Whaaa” – very difficult for me.
And also to help care and treat and heal the family who, by extension, is also not well because of the child. And those were very pivotal moments for me because I learned not only about people but more importantly about myself.
…Because I love children, I thought I could be a dancing doctor in the pediatric ward.
How did you jump into surgery then?
So once I recognized that I didn’t have neither the skill nor the talent nor the passion for pediatrics. I thought, ok I don’t want to do that but I had banked on that and so it was a little too late to change majors, if you will. So I wound up taking an additional year off, so that put me off schedule with the rest of my class. I had one more rotation before that year off and it was in surgery, which I had avoided. I wanted to do it last in the summer, thinking it would be cake walk and easy.
Quite the contrary: it was the most difficult rotation I ever had to deal with, not only because of personalities and sort of interesting gender identity types of things, but because it was just hard, it was trauma, it was death, it was accidents, it was cancer, it was all of life in your face. So I was also very lucky there to have had a couple of mentors who said to me yeah its tough, yeah its difficult, but if you can survive and you can thrive and you can be really passionate about actively doing something to help people, this is where you belong.
So I chose to go into surgery and again it was life learning because if you’re working 120-150 hour work weeks for five years in a row, you tend to lose sight of what’s important and what you’re supposed to learn. So I learned a lot again about people and myself, and probably made some decisions that I would not have made in terms of communicating and interacting with others, but you learn along the way and you grow and you evolve.
That was five years of general surgery, and luckily, I did alright at that. And I remember being offered a position actually at the hospital to help run or help be a part of the trauma team and I thought, wow that’s really exciting, like that’s where the action is and that’s where you can really have an impact on saving people’s lives. But then I went back to me and that basic tenet: what do you love, who are you, what principles and values resonate with you? And yes it was life and love and happiness and all that stuff and learning, but it was also beauty. I’ve always been attracted to beauty, and how is it that I can create, even in the most ugliest of circumstances, how can I find beauty in that?
So I thought, wow this is fantastic, I can’t believe I’m being offered this job and it’s great but it’s not my passion. So I turned that down and decided to get more training! What else is a girl to do? Learn something else! So at that point I applied for plastic surgery.
How old were you at this point?
I was in my twenties, somewhere in my twenties, and into thirties, who knows. But I graduated from college at 18, and then I graduated four years of medical school, you know, plus the fifth year of masters degree when I was taking my sabbatical, and five years of general surgery. Then two years of plastic surgery, so that was my attempt at pursuing, not just function, but form. So beauty, as well as functionality.
And where did you do your plastic surgery training?
I did plastic surgery training at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. At the end of those two years, I thought wow this is great but I don’t feel complete, I’m not finished. I remember thinking to myself, I’m a woman. I love beauty, I want to surround myself with beauty, and I want to help others surround themselves with beauty, whatever that means to them. But I don’t feel as if I’ve learned enough to have the privilege of doing that for my patients. So I said ok I will go and get additional voluntary training in the form of a fellowship, which is what I did.
So then at the end of my plastic surgery fellowship, I then took an additional year in cosmetic, or aesthetic, plastic surgery, and that was more, relatively speaking, more of an independent study, I was bringing in my own patients, setting up the operations, making sure they were clear for surgery, it was preparing me to be a plastic surgeon in an office, without my really understanding that.
But then you also spent some time in Paris training as well?
2002 is when I graduated, so at that time, there were just no plastic surgery jobs to be had. I mean in general, plastic surgery is relatively elective. Of course there’s the reconstructive aspect, there’s the hand surgery aspect, there’s the cleft lip and congenital deformities, and then there’s gender reassignment surgery, it wasn’t that particular back then – increasing in popularity! So there weren’t really many jobs to offer.
So at that point, one thing let to another and I got in touch with a physician from Paris. I think it was a nurse I knew who maybe used to work with another doctor, who used to work for a supermodel, we used to go to Paris to get these interesting vitamin injections, and I thought that’s interesting! Vitamins, injections, Paris, beauty, love – that’s for me!
I trained under this physician, and he taught me one of the techniques that I now use to this day in my office. The VitaGlow, MesoGlow, vitamin injections and one thing again lead to another, because I speak French from my family, and I was in Paris learning this technique, they asked me to help give a presentation at a conference, and I said sure why not, I’d be happy to serve as translator if I can. And while I was on stage giving a presentation, there was a publisher somewhere in the audience, and he found me after and said, listen this is great, you speak French and English you can help us translate things, you can help us write a book, are you interested? I’m like, sure!
So things just seemed to happen, and I know they’re not random, but I certainly can’t explain them now. And once I get back from that several months to a year off, I came back and I thought to myself, I cannot wait for someone else, meaning an employer, or a hospital, or another physician, to validate my experience. I’ve worked hard, I’ve put in a lot of time, money, and energy. I just have to do this on my own, and I don’t know if it’s the right thing, the smart thing.
There was a lot of resistance from my family. Starting a practice requires a lot of up front money, cash, that I never thought I would need, because I always thought I would be employed. But I came back thinking, no one’s going to hire me. I have something to offer, and even if I don’t right now, I will continue to grow and evolve so that I make sure before I go that I have something to offer. And I can’t just sit around and wait for someone to say, hey chick you’re fine. I’ll take you, start. So I figured I’d start on my own. So…
I came back and I thought to myself… I just have to do this on my own, and I don’t know if it’s the right thing, the smart thing.
And that was 11 years ago!
That was 11 years ago. 2004-2005, yeah.
How did you pay for school? Did you need to take loans and were in debt? Or were you able to get help from your family?
All of the above as well as working part time while in school.
So as a plastic surgeon, what is beauty for you?
Beauty for me is, frankly it’s everything. And it has no particular form, it has no particular shape. It doesn’t look the same in you that it does for me that it does for someone else.
I think beauty is that very special feeling that you get deep inside when you look upon something, and it causes you to feel really good. And it’s ephemeral, it’s ethereal, it’s sometimes surreal, all the words you can apply, that you can imply, but you can’t really touch even though you can put your hand on an infant’s face, and that’s just beautiful. I firmly believe that there’s a chemical reaction that takes place when you look upon something beautiful in nature. There’s a chemical reaction that is biological and cannot be denied that just makes you melt or soften, and it’s in that moment that one can identify the essence of beauty.
For me, it’s kind of deep, even though ironically people tell me, I got plastic surgery, it’s superficial. I want to say to them, on the contrary, it’s one of the deepest, deepest things you will ever know.
Beauty for me is, frankly it’s everything.
What kind of surgery would you do on yourself?
I have not done so, but I would consider liposuction, (especially now that I’m trying to get off the last two pounds these days).
Can you talk a little bit about sort of the different things that you encounter in your work?
Oh wow, so much. I’ve learned a lot through my patients. It’s a bilateral opportunity to learn from each other, and I know people come to me for my training, my expertise. But I do believe that there’s an interaction that goes on, there’s a connection some times. In my role to help people to define their best version of beauty, I think that’s very empowering. I take that as a privilege. That someone would come into my office, this room, for example, and be nude and vulnerable, and then speak to me, a total stranger and admit that they don’t like something about themselves, is intense. Because sometimes you just have to be realistic, and we’re dealing with a tumor or a cancer that has to be removed and reconstructed afterwards, that is what it is.
But because I’ve learned so much from my patients, I have adjusted my philosophy, and my philosophy is no longer as it was in my first two or so years of practice, straight up plastic surgery. I decided to take a more holistic approach, and holistic plastic surgery doesn’t exist. It’s not a field, it’s just my way of doing things in plastic surgery. Because I recognize that even though I may be operating on breasts, for breast augmentation or reduction, I’m really operating on the whole body; my whole body, mind, psyche, soul, goes through the experience. So it behooves me to try to help that patient take care of all of those levels as much as possible before surgery and after.
And there’s no such thing as perfection. But given our imperfections and what we’re starting with, there’s certain results and outcomes that we look for, we anticipate, and that people will pay us a lot of money for. And sometimes it doesn’t go that way. And I had to really dig deep because I take things personally. And I was taught in surgical training, don’t take things personally.
I recognize that even though I may be operating on breasts, for breast augmentation or reduction, I’m really operating on the whole body; my whole body, mind, psyche, soul, goes through the experience.
That’s interesting what you say about imperfection, because I think one of the misconceptions about plastics is that people are seeking an idea of perfection.
I think there’s a lot of beauty in imperfection, and I also think that the words perfect and perfection are loaded. It’s aspirational, it’s inspiring, but it may not be the ultimate reality. So we are all, many of us, asymmetric, and it’s the asymmetry, it’s the little differences between left and right that make us interesting. And those things that make us interesting, it might be the little asymmetry that catches someone’s eye, that creates that chemical reaction that says, oh yeah that’s the one. And yeah as plastic surgeons we study dimensions, and we study contours and numbers, and there’s a lot of geometry and physics – we study symmetry! And our goal is to help to recreate, if it didn’t previously exist, or to create, symmetry. Balance, harmony, quote unquote, beauty. But beauty does not necessarily equate with balance, harmony, and symmetry. And so that’s why it’s really important to have that conversation with the patient before procedure, operative or non-operative, to ask how do you define beauty? What’s important to you? By the way, did you notice that one eyebrow is higher than the other? If I do Botox in a certain way, they may even out, how do you feel about that? So I think the pursuit of perfection may not always be realistic, and as importantly, it may not be the desired outcome. So it’s important to have a conversation.
How do you deal with patients who maybe are interested in a procedure or trying to reach a level of perfection where you don’t necessarily feel comfortable as their doctor?
It happens. I’ve had patients who will come in with photos of celebrities and the patient looks nothing like that celebrity, and they will ask for operations to create that particular feature. I just say no, and I say it as lovingly and kindly, and with a lot of education around it. And some of the reasons I say no include that I’m not comfortable because I don’t think it’s realistic, number two it’s just not physically possible, number three they just have lots of medical problems that would preclude them for getting on an operating table for anything, much less something elective and relatively, you know, perceived as unnecessary. And finally, I’m very realistic about myself. I know how I’ve trained, I know what I’m trained in, there are things I love doing, things I do very very well, and there are other things that I just don’t love to do. I know how to do them but, frankly, I just know that I won’t give you the best results, but I will very happily refer you to the people who I know in my network or my mentors who are the kings and queens of the procedure, so I freely give.
I think there’s a lot of beauty in imperfection, and I also think that the words perfect and perfection are loaded.
Why do you think Caitlyn Jenner’s face looks strangely like other women who had plastic surgery ? She probably has the best surgeons… Do you think there are commonalities in the way people look after surgery?
Sometimes, when prospective patients consult with surgeons for cosmetic surgery, perhaps they request a specific feature, such as “celebrity X’s nose.” Rather than request another person’s particular physical attribute, it is imperative to know yourself and to understand that what fits one face may not fit yours. Beauty may not be defined by one facial feature alone in absence of the whole (holistic) picture…
What would you say the differences are in terms of having a private practice versus working, you know, at a hospital?
Serious differences, and sometimes very painful. One of the things I learned about myself during training is that I value my autonomy. My autonomy to develop my own opinions, my own judgment, to put my own values into practice and work it out.
But I miss, from being in a hospital system, I miss the camaraderie, of having colleagues around. I also miss having the structure and the foundation of a hospital, where I didn’t have to worry about, did I run out of supplies, oh my gosh do I have syringes, is there enough Botox in the refrigerator? Of course I have assistants who check on that, but my first couple of years I didn’t have assistants.
So I do miss that stability, also in compensation. It didn’t matter how many hours you worked, you were salaried, and it was there at the end of the week or biweekly. So that was also something I very much had to get used to, and it’s challenging. It’s very challenging. Those are probably some of the main things I miss about being in the hospital. Also just having nurses, right? And having physician assistants.
How big is your staff now?
My staff is anywhere between 1 to 2, depending on when I’m hiring and firing. It’s pretty much me. I consider myself having what I call a very high touch practice. I do not accept insurance, so obviously that does not mean I have three patients in here at a time. And when I do have patients in here I make sure that I allocate enough time so no one feels rushed. You walk in here, you feel as if I am all about you and you get your money’s worth. You do pay a lot, you pay money for it.
Have you ever thought about bringing on a partner?
I have thought about bringing on a partner so many times, and I’ve decided against it for a number of reasons. Number 1 I like things done such a certain way, it would be a little challenging for me to teach and train that with time. Number 2 I still feel as if after 10 years I am still trying to establish myself as a credible expert who does things perhaps a little differently, perhaps holistically. So I don’t feel as if I’m ready to give, to offer myself to another physician the best that I could offer. And lastly for now, it kind of goes against my high touch practice and I guess while I’m still relatively young and energetic, I’m giving it all, I’m keeping it high touch for as long as I can. And if I ever really get tired, which I don’t think I ever will, I love what I do, but if circumstances change that I need more time with my family, or I need more time for other things, then at that point yeah I’ll have to consider that.
And if it isn’t a new partner or an additional partner, it may be some other kind of partner. Maybe I’ll partner with someone in skincare, you know, a beauty line that may involve a combination of things, inside and out, I would love that. Maybe I will go back to my passion of writing, maybe I’ll write something. Who knows! So yeah, I will partner with something or someone at some point. As one of my good friends says to me, which is my mantra, everything in divine precision. So when it presents itself to me, I will have to do some work to have itself present to me, but when that time happens, hopefully I will be smart enough to take on the challenge.
How do you find patients, or how do patients come to you?
Initially, it was purely word of mouth. And frankly, even before that I would just call up my friends and say, hey I just learned how to do Botox. Want to try? Hey I learned this new technique in Paris, want to try? And so thank God for my circle of friends because they allowed me to experiment. But that’s how it started, and they started saying hey Shirley’s doing this interesting thing, it actually looks really good.
Then after that I was lucky enough to have shared office space with a gynecologist, actually in Soho, and I think she believed in me enough to send me a couple of patients, and it grew from that.
I grew up with parents who didn’t believe in taking pills, in taking medicine. They believed that your body will heal itself, and if you need help, if your body needs help, we’re going to do something natural.
How has your multiethnic background contributed to your philosophy?
How I grew up had a lot to do with my philosophy. I grew up with parents who didn’t believe in taking pills, in taking medicine. They believed that your body will heal itself, and if you need help, if your body needs help, we’re going to do something natural. It’s going to involve garlic or clove or sometimes rum. Also with my culture being part French, I grew up in homeopathy. That was huge. So that was obviously an integral part of my practice.
We were also taught that food is sustenance. But food can also help to heal or not. So nutrition is a huge part of my practice.
The other part of my culture and upbringing that affects my practice and philosophy is just the concept of beauty. Right? I, my family is beyond mixed; I don’t even know what to call us anymore. And so at our family gatherings, whether it was Christmas or Thanksgiving, there was every color sitting at the table. There was blonde hair with green eyes, there was – my grandfather had dark skin and blue eyes. So for me there was never one standard of beauty. There was never one aesthetic. Everyone looked different and was beautiful in a different way. So the concept of beauty went beyond what one looked like. So if you were a beautiful person but were just not nice, then you were no longer beautiful. And that’s how I grew up! And that’s part of my philosophy. There’s only so much that I as a plastic surgeon can do vis-à-vis in helping you to bring about the best version of yourself, because if you’re not that cute on the inside I’m not sure there’s anything I can do for you. So I am limited also, which is why I like to take on more of a collaborative relationship with my patients. It’s like listen I’ve trained, I have knowledge, I can help, but you have to help me too. You have to adhere, you have to be compliant, you have to talk to me, communicate. Let’s co-create something beautiful together.
So what’s an average day like for you?
An office day would be, I walk into the office, I don’t know who’s coming in. I just check the schedule that morning or the day before. I take a little bit of an assessment, just feel out the space, make sure everything feels ok, make sure everything looks ok, get myself prepared for whoever is coming, whatever procedures. I’ll ask my assistant who’s coming first, what are we doing. And then I’ll just get ready for that, and I pretty much just keep myself fairly open. And whoever walks in, it’s just always a tabula rasa, blank slate every single person. But generally speaking, on office days, hopefully I get in a run in the morning. I’m a light breakfast eater, I don’t have a huge breakfast. It’s usually, you know, tea and a piece of fruit, or maybe just tea. I’ll come in, I’ll see patients all day. When I’m done, I’ll try to get done at a reasonable time so I can go to yoga down in Tribeca. Because that really helps to regenerate everything. So after yoga, depending on the class I take, it’s either 8:30 or 10:30, and then I’ll just go home. And once I get home, I’ll just chat with my fiancé, how was your day? It may be brief, but go to sleep and wake up and it’s a whole next day.
If it’s a surgical day, I will wake up early because OR [operating room] usually starts early, sometimes I’m up at 6, sometimes I’m up at 7:30 depending on the OR time. And that morning I really just try to get into my zone. I try not to schedule patients on surgical days, so I have designated surgery days and I have designed office days. So I will exercise, I will go for a run, I will try to do some yoga, I try to meditate. I don’t get it in everyday. And then I’ll just take my time, and what I say, be easy about it, and go into the OR and go into the hospital and meet my patients, greet their family, any additional questions, let’s do our markings, go to the operating room, be social, how is everybody, how’ve you been. I just try to make it a flowing day with positive energy and do my best.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part about my work is interacting with people and finding out who people are. And what drives them and how it is that I can help to really empower them. I think beauty is empowering.
I think beauty is empowering.
What do you find most challenging about your job?
The same thing that I love about my job: people can be challenging. But sometimes the reason people are challenging is because they challenge me. I am challenged by my failures in human interaction. If something doesn’t go as expected, it’s because I failed to address the expectation. And expectation is equally powerful. If you expect something but I don’t expect it and say yes it’s possible, no it’s not possible, and this is why not, that’s on me. So it’s not that people, in and of themselves, are difficult. And I know we have interactions with people like that, but I think sometimes it’s the people who are difficult who are truly or actually mirroring something about me that frustrates me because I didn’t address it in myself. And I don’t like it. But it’s a process, a journey.
Do you feel you have a mentor?
I have a few actually colleagues. A couple, one, two or three female plastic surgeons who I go to – what do you think of this, what do I do about this? My chairman from my aesthetic plastic surgery fellowship, Donald Woodsman, he’s been phenomenal. And at every level I have mentors, I just have mentors in other fields.
So mentors, not only teach for me and guide, provide guidance, but they also serve to give me a bit of inspiration. My mother, she’s always been about – there’s a saying in French… on hair pins, just always poised, and always putting your best face forward, even when you’re not necessarily feeling great on the inside. But giving people your best. And I credit that to my mother. I credit her for inspiring me to think outside of the box, and think outside of my box. My dad, he’s a banker who basically told me, ok honey you don’t know a thing about banking so how are you going to run a practice? So that challenge to make me take business courses, whenever I could. I’ve had mentors, guidance, angels, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, all along the way, and I continue to. I hope they stay!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Be true to yourself. Honor yourself, by extension honor your temple. I wasn’t really so good at honoring my temple, but I have found that if I treat myself well – I eat well, I try to exercise, I just try to radiate, I try to become, I try to embody the person I would want to be with. Can’t live without that. Stay true to yourself and I think that pretty much says it. Whatever your truth is.
Be true to yourself. Honor yourself, by extension honor your temple.
What would your advice be to someone who’s thinking about getting surgery?
Just really examine your motivations and try to make the decision for yourself. Not external influence. Approval is most important when it comes from the self. So if you’re self-approved, I think you’re on the right track.
And what would your advice be to aspiring plastic surgeons?
Yes! Go for it! It’s fabulous! Plastic fantastic! But plastic fantastic insofar as you can embrace the broader perspective, which is, yes plastic surgery, but beauty! And wellness! Through plastic surgery. That’s my stance on it. For me, I love plastic surgery but deeper than that I love beauty.
What’s your dream for your career?
I have a few that are on the top of my list. Continue to grow my practice because I really love my philosophy and I really want it to get out there more globally. It ties a lot in, it’s cohesive, yes plastic surgery, beauty, wellness, totally related to fashion, totally related to beauty, totally related to your shoes. So I would definitely love to continue growing my practice and maybe somehow have some kind of international, global impact, and that might have to be bigger and deeper than the plastic surgery in and of itself, but I’m more beyond that.
The other career goal I have is certainly to write a book. And it doesn’t have to be on plastic surgery, not really sure – a holistic thing, you know, beauty, wellness, something. And the other big one is to develop a line. Not skincare products necessarily per se because I know a lot of dermatologists do that and some plastic surgeons, but it has to complement inside-out, you know maybe serums with supplements or something with something, but it’s got to address inside and out. And I know that’s very popular in Europe and Asia, and we’re starting to pick up on that, and maybe incorporating a little DNA action, like swab something, or it could be a piece of your nail and my lab will identify it and tell you what you’re missing or something! But that’s happening already, it’s very exciting. If I could be a part of that, I would love it.
I would definitely love to continue growing my practice and maybe somehow have some kind of international, global impact…