Kaveh Alizadeh: A top Surgeon is Raising Philanthropy to a High Form of Art

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Kaveh Alizadeh.

Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh is the Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Westchester Medical Center, and Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery at New York Medical College.

Dedicated to advancing the field of plastic surgery, Dr. Alizadeh directs the Clinical Research Division of Cosmoplastic Surgery, where he has conducted multiple clinical trials in plastic surgery devices, breast surgery and injectables for rejuvenation. He is credited for developing a new breast lift technique, NaturaBra™as well as “progressive” eyelid lift and abdominoplasty techniques. Since 2005, he has been recognized as a Top Doctor by Consumer Research Council and since 2010, a Castle Connolly Top Doctor. Dr. Alizadeh has also received national recognition as a Top Doctor by U.S. News and World Report. Dr. Alizadeh has appeared in news media such as CNN, CBS 60 minutes, NBC Today Show, Discovery Health, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He has authored numerous publications and has given extensive presentations on the national and international level. In 2009, Dr. Alizadeh’s humanitarian volunteer work earned him the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an award recorded in the United States Congressional Record.

Dr. Alizadeh specializes in a range of cosmetic and reconstructive surgical procedures, as well as lessinvasive treatments. Cosmetic procedures include breast augmentation, lift, and reduction, body contouring, including buttock augmentation and labioplasty, as well as minimally invasive facial rejuvenation. Reconstructive procedures include breast reconstruction after cancer and migraine surgery. He also performs the latest non-invasive facial rejuvenation techniques, including injectables such as Radiesse +, Restylane Silk, Lyft, Kybella, Voluma, Botox® Cosmetic, Xeomin, disport, Juvederm®, and Sculptra® Aesthetic, for which he is a certified national trainer.

Dr. Alizadeh obtained his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and earned his Masters Degree from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He then pursued his MD from Cornell University Medical College, having received commendation from the Dean. Dr. Alizadeh completed his General Surgery and Plastic Surgery training at the University of Chicago Hospitals followed by an additional year of subspecialty training in Cosmetic Surgery, Microsurgery, and Breast Reconstruction at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He has received further executive education training at Harvard Business School.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in Tehran in the 1960s, at a time when there was tremendous hope and opportunity in Iran. The shah had launched a wide-reaching series of reforms under the “White Revolution” and my parents joined the government with the hopes of modernizing the country. My father had obtained his PhD and graduate training in the United States and ultimately returned to work as the Deputy Minister of the Commerce Department, while my mother obtained a masters in library science and worked for the Ministry of Higher Education. Meanwhile, I had other family members who had grown disillusioned with the progress and opted for alternative solutions. Prominent among them was my uncle, Hamid Ashraf, who led the armed struggle against the regime in the early 70s. As you can imagine, this kept our dinner conversations very interesting. I was lucky to be exposed to various ideas and diverse views early on in my childhood. My schoolmates represented diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and religions and we embraced education and progress as our inevitable destiny.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a seismic event for me and many of the Iranian diaspora. But my life turned upside down years earlier due to the political instability that preceded the revolution. By the mid-1970s my uncle had been killed and parents and other relatives had been in and out of prison. The future became increasingly uncertain as schools were closed and strikes became more frequent. This taught me equanimity in the face of turmoil as I witnessed firsthand the fragility of life and the fraying of Iran’s social fabric within a short period of time. Having survived the revolution as a refugee, my drive to thrive as an immigrant in America became the most defining aspect of my character.

You are recognized as an outstanding surgeon. Can you share the highlights of your work?

I am fortunate to have studied with some of the best surgeons in the world. I trained in plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the University of Chicago Hospitals and received additional training at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Microsurgery and Cancer Reconstruction as well as Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. I learned early on that the most important aspect of great surgeons is their unequivocal passion for learning and utter dedication to patient care. I was able to take on leadership positions early on as the chief medical officer for a public national aesthetics company and president of the largest private academic plastic surgery clinic in the United States. I am also truly lucky to have been exposed to some amazing patients who have entrusted me with their care. I was part of the team that separated the conjoint twins successfully last year and have participated in unique facial reconstructions on victims of war from Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. We have pioneered some interesting approaches to reconstructive surgery and carried these ideas into the realm of cosmetic surgery such as the “naturabra” technique in breast surgery. I also have a very satisfying elective cosmetic surgery practice mostly because of the bond and long term relationships I have with these patients. I am now at a stage of my career where I am taking care of the children of some of my female patients, which is very gratifying. 
What are the current trends in plastic surgery?

Plastic Surgery uses scientific principles of medicine to build unique artistic outcomes that are individualized for each patient. The biggest trend for those of us who are passionate about patient outcomes is to use technology to carefully record every little detail of the patient so that we can track them post-operatively. Using this data-driven approach, we are finding ways to minimize the trauma and downtime of surgeries. We can now perform three-dimensional photography simulation of patients’ outcomes and measure every pore and line over time. I used 3D printing to create a parallel life model of the conjoined twins I operated on recently in order to plan how the surgery would actually happen. This allowed my team to cut down on the operative time significantly even though it still ended up being a 21 hour operation. The negative trend in the field is the increasing noise that we see on the internet and social media where so-called “experts” choose hype over sound medical advice. I have been very vocal on the dangers of medical tourism which in some cases sacrifices quality healthcare in exchange for price.
How do you see your field changing? What excites you most about the future of your field?

The best part of Plastic Surgery is that it has no limitations other than respect for the human body. We treat men and women from birth to death, whether they have a congenital abnormality such as clefts, or have been a victim of a trauma, such as burns or a dog bite, or have suffered from diseases of aging, such as skin cancer or pressure ulcers. We get to use the principles of reconstruction and apply them to the world of cosmetic surgery where we can enhance the individual to their desired self. The merging of medicine and biotechnology is allowing us to customize the care for the patients. It used to be that the patient would wait until they were 60 years old to get a face lift. We now start with patients in their 30s with smaller procedures such as injectables for the face or lasers for the skin and modify the treatments to maintain a youthful look. We have successfully performed full face transplants and have the ability to bioengineer tissues and prefabricate body parts with the emerging field of regenerative medicine. This means that as a plastic surgeon I am no longer limited to the patient’s own donor sites and can design body parts for replacement and enhancement in the future.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

I am very fortunate that in any given day I get to live my passions of academic medicine, clinical surgery, and global health. I divide my time between research and teaching at an academic medical center, performing cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, and leading Mission: Restore(www.missionrestore.org), a non-profit foundation that provides free healthcare education. The best part is that I can move seamlessly between each of these areas as lessons from one arena can help with the others. I direct a headache center where we oversee the management of chronic headache patients and have developed techniques for the relief of migraines. It is the most satisfying to see patients who have been dependent on narcotics come off medications and live happy healthy lives. I always try to merge my clinical experience with our non-profit work. For example, we now have our students watch patients in Africa via telemedicine and see devastating traumatic deformities that they would never encounter in their training in New York. Using videoconferencing, we get to examine the patients via our colleagues in Africa and teach them what to do while warning our students here what not to do. At the end of the day, it’s about seeing someone smile, whether that’s one of the students, doctors, or patients.

You have been very active in philanthropy and other social engagements. For instance, you have chosen to dedicate much of your time to volunteering in different areas in need, working throughout Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Is there a particular reason for this in terms of family history, views on “giving back”, etc.?

During the last year of my medical school training at Cornell, I received a scholarship to return to Iran to study throat cancer in the Caspian littorals. During that visit, I was introduced to Doctors Without Borders that was working with Afghan refugees on the Border in the Herat and Khorasan region. I found my time with the refugees there to be one of the most gratifying experiences in medical school, and subsequently I made a personal promise to myself that I would always find the time to help the underserved in my capacity. I have now kept that promise for 20 years by making an annual visit as a volunteer medical trainer. My experience on the front lines of global health led me and colleagues to found Mission: Restore, which this summer alone trained over 100 health care professionals from 14 countries. 
What is the biggest challenge that you face in your career?

Surgery requires continuous mental focus and physical stamina. I would say it is no different than the athletes in a biathlon who have to have the ability to cross country ski long hours while maintaining a high level of mental discipline in order to shoot a small target flawlessly on demand. As I enter my mid-career stage, I realize that my biggest challenge is not only to master the physical and mental demands of the profession, but the ability to pick the right patient. Once one learns the act of surgery, the patients become more important because the true journey is about the outcome of the patient and their willingness to participate in their care and recovery. 
Tell us about the highlights of your time in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

I have travelled to over 20 countries taking care of unique patients such as a boy who had a landmine injury in Iraq, or a farmer mauled by a hippopotamus in Tanzania. To date, the best present I have received was a fresh egg presented by the parents of a Bolivian child that we skin grafted for burn injuries. I worked with various foundations as a volunteer surgeon since 1998 until I founded Mission: Restore, which promotes a new model of working with local surgeons. This means that we will never travel to a country and operate by ourselves on the native population. Instead, we form relationships with the local physicians and act as mentors to them so that they have the confidence of taking on more complex reconstructive procedures and feel accountable for the care of their community. We first focused on crisis management in countries such as the earthquake in Haiti or the Afghanistan war, but have now increasingly turned our attention to Africa, as the next global epidemic will be people with traumatic accidents who have no access to surgical care. 
Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

Despite the challenges between the two countries, history reveals more similarity than differences between the American and Iranian culture. Persia’s Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great established the world’s first charter for human rights which the American founding fathers incorporated into the US constitution. It is important to take the long view of history and note Iran’s much longer perspective over thousands of years which have seen it survive despite internal turmoil. This has made Iranians resilient in face of tyranny and oppression, which are also values shared by Americans during their fight for freedom. The most important part of my heritage is the belief in the core unit of the family and the resilience to maintain our true identity. Most of the Persian traditions are based on bringing the extended family together in rituals which in turn create a strong sense of community. Our gatherings are an expression of our love for prose, poetry, dance, and music which weave in the history of a people with a continuous history dating back thousands of years. I came to the United States in the midst of the hostage crisis and always saw myself as an ambassador of the Iranian image. In our contemporary history, it is important to note that Iranian Americans comprise the most educated class in the United States and have made huge contributions to the growth of American society in a very short period of time. I hope that my children are able to maintain their Iranian heritage despite the challenges that we see today, and hope that they too will equally be proud of both their identities just as I am today.

Kurdistan operating with the local doctors. Working at a clinic in Manadalay, Myanmar (Burma) in 2006.
Afghanistan border 1993
An Ethiopian refugee camp in 1998. Mwanza Tanzania
A 6 year old Iraqi boy whose face and skull was shattered and lost from a car bomb injury so that he could not talk, eat, or breathe and required 4 operations prior to this photo. With pair of twins with cleft deformity in Baku Azerbaijan in 2008