— Dr. Benjamin Stone, Doc Hollywood (1991)
Those of us old enough to remember this film grew up thinking plastic surgery meant lots of money, tummy tucks, and, if we’re honest, a pretty boring existence as a physician.
And, in reality, it can be like that. A local plastic surgeon, once based out west, confirmed that his job was pretty similar to the ‘Doc Hollywood’ experience. Lots of money, but pretty unfulfilling. He grew tired of raising someone’s cheek an eighth of an inch.
But God had bigger plans for him and his training. Now based outside of Philadelphia, he primarily serves women who’ve had mastectomies. Things that most women take for granted have been lost, and it’s his privilege to restore a measure of choice and dignity to them and their families.
Another physician I know always dreamed of being a missionary physician. He, too, eventually chose plastic surgery. He and his wife wound up going to Ethiopia, where his work focused on cleft palates and other important procedures for that culture. In his particular area of focus, cosmetic issues led to ridicule and isolation even greater than our American culture. And so, under very different circumstances than the other doctor I mentioned, he too restored dignity to people half a world away.
This ability to restore wholeness and bestow dignity, I think, is what gives plastic surgery a solid, more lasting, appeal.
It’s not that a cosmetic defect or injury inherently takes dignity away, or, that unusual beauty creates or heightens it. When God had the prophet Samuel choose one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king, he rejected Eliab despite his GQ exterior (1 Samuel 16:7). And the Syrian commander Naaman’s leprosy did not prevent his healing at God’s hand (2 Kings 5). So, when a plastic surgeon performs a procedure, it’s not that she’s creating dignity in the truest sense. Because that ultimately comes from God, that can neither be ultimately given nor taken away.
So, then, what is a plastic surgeon really doing?
I’m still thinking about this, but at least two things comes to mind.
First, a real part of being made in God’s image (or likeness) includes how we look. (Similar to how a community’s appearance is not its most important trait but still matters). Although Western culture has gone too far and become obsessed with its appearance, that doesn’t mean how we look is unimportant. Children are not supposed to have cleft palates. People are not meant to become disfigured in accidents. As it is, though, the entire world is broken and in need of repair. Plastic surgeons take part in God’s call to restore us to ‘original factory condition’, the way we were meant to be.
There’s a second issue here that’s really an elaboration of the first. Part of living in a fallen world often involves receiving ridicule and shame because of our brokenness. When that brokenness is cosmetic and obvious to everyone, other broken people may make fun of us in ways that are legitimately painful, no matter how close we are to God. And, beyond what others send our way, we add our own self-reproach. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t worry about how we look, but in this world we also bring our own issues that come from making appearance more important than it was meant to be. Through restoring the body, plastic surgeons can essentially remove or reduce these temptations, both from without and within, to shame and disgrace. In that sense, they restore dignity and it matters.
So, what may at first appear shallow is actually quite profound. Jesus forever proved this when He healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). But it was far more than just a healing and points to one of the tremendous opportunities that comes from this line of work. The post-operative transformation is often dramatic and leads to great thanksgiving among people who otherwise might be less open to the gospel. (The man here was a Samaritan). You can bet he told His friends about Jesus and that this had a profound effect on the people around him. By God’s design.
Could it be that God is calling you to consider a career in plastic surgery as a way of partnering with Him in His Kingdom work?