Dr. Sam Fuller: 5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Plastic Surgeon

An Interview With Jake Frankel

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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You need to be trendy. The world, particularly social media, medicine, and plastic surgery, are advancing at an incredible rate. Each year there are new trends in social media and in the realm of surgery. It truly is incumbent upon the plastic surgeon to embrace lifelong learning as a way to stay with the times. This means investing time, and often money, in updating and managing social media accounts. While one year it may be one media outlet, the next year may lead to a new app or social media account leading to more viewers and more exposure to your patients.

As a part of my series about healthcare leaders, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sam Fuller of Sam Fuller Plastic Surgery.

Dr. Sam Fuller is a Board-Certified Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon with Subspecialty Certification in Surgery of the Hand (SOTH). Renowned for his expertise in body contouring and hand surgery, Dr. Fuller offers reassuring guidance and comprehensive answers to surgical inquiries at his practice in South Bend, Indiana. He’s a four-time winner of South Bend Tribune’s “Best Plastic/Cosmetic Surgeon” and named to Michiana’s 40 under Forty by the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce,

A graduate of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Dr. Fuller’s multifaceted journey began with a double major in Pre-Med and Spanish at the University of Notre Dame, complemented by a transformative study abroad experience in Spain, igniting his passion for anatomy and surgical procedures. His commitment to innovation is evidenced by his ownership of a patent for tendon repair, further showcasing his dedication to advancing the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery. With a rare blend of conciseness and thoroughness, his consultations reflect his dedication to patient care and surgical excellence.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”? What led you to this very interesting career?

I’m originally from Chicago and grew up as a big sports fan, playing all different sports and of course admiring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bull dynasty of the 1990s. I learned very early that I would not become a professional athlete, but I was intrigued by the injuries and surgeries that players required. From this, I felt that I could perhaps become a physician that works with athletes, dreaming of being a doctor from an early age. It was not until medical school when I was exposed to the incredibly intricate, artistic, and diverse world of plastic surgery that I knew I had found my calling. The ability to change lives, from newborns with extra fingers or cleft lips to burn victims to hand injuries and microsurgery, the vast and thrilling field really captured my interest. After careful consideration I opted to pursue plastic surgery over orthopedic surgery.

Through staying true to my initial interest in sports medicine and coupled with my later interest in plastic surgery, I now practice hand surgery and treat athletes, workers, and patients of all ages, while at the same time maintaining a robust plastic surgery practice consisting of body contouring, mommy makeovers, skin cancer removals, and other problems. It is truly a unique hybrid practice that lets me enjoy both orthopedic principles and plastic surgery artistry in Indiana, routinely treating patients from around the state as well Michigan, Illinois, and afar.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I can recall numerous surgeries and interesting cases during my career, but one that stands out is purely coincidental. During my plastic surgery board exam, I was examined and evaluated by some of the top plastic surgeons in the country. Following the exam, one of my examiners approached me and let me know that his in-laws are actually from the South Bend, Indiana area, and he frequently visits the city. Months later, he later called me at my office to ask for my recommendations of a spine surgeon in my practice. Later, from that initial meeting, I actually treated his mother-in-law for both skin cancer and a wrist injury.

To me, this really illustrates how small of a world we live in, and the confidence and respect I received from a prominent plastic surgeon to not only accept me as a plastic surgeon but also to recommend a family member to undergo surgery with me as a patient! We continue to keep in touch and connect at national meetings.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest mistakes occurred when I began my orthopedic hand fellowship training in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Curtis National Hand Center. During one of my first trauma calls, I received a transfer request from a patient in Delaware who sustained a hand injury. Unfamiliar with the local US geography, I questioned why the transfer would be sent from multiple states across the upper east coast all the way down to Maryland. The medical professional on the phone calmly informed me that Delaware was a neighboring state of Maryland and, in fact, in close proximity to the hospital I was covering! Needless to say, I accepted the transfer and successfully treated the patient.

Besides the literal geography lesson, I was also reminded that there are no “stupid questions” in medicine, and as providers we must continuously ask questions, seek answers, no matter if it might seem unimportant. My newfound Baltimore friends certainly made fun of me for a while after this though!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Currently, I am working on two projects. One is the exciting and absolutely necessary work to bring my US Patent into use for tendon injuries. When in Baltimore, Maryland, I collaborated with the MedStar Innovation Lab and Cleveland Clinic to design a novel device that can be used to treat tendon lacerations. Since the 1960s, only sutures have been used for tendon repairs, and this is an inefficient and relatively unstable treatment, leaving patients with risk of stiffness and rupture. With the help of my new device, I am optimistic that we can release a “game changer” in the field of tendon injury by allowing earlier motion and function without the archaic treatment still utilized in modern medicine today.

The other project is in review for publication and incorporates endoscopic carpal tunnel release in revision cases. This is something that has the potential to decrease morbidity, recovery, and pain in patients who require a second carpal tunnel release.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It would be impossible to choose only one person who helped me achieve the success I have reached so far in my life. It is a common phrase in medicine to say that younger doctors and trainees “Stood on the shoulders of giants,” but that was exactly true in my career. Two such individuals truly shaped my career and convinced me to pursue plastic surgery.

Dr. Larry Gottlieb and Dr. Larry Zachary are two renowned surgeons who practiced plastic surgery at the University of Chicago. Together, their humor, hard work, passion, and true interest in teaching and helping younger physicians undoubtedly helped build a foundation for future success.

Dr. Larry Gottlieb, as a microsurgeon and burn surgeon, illustrated to me the need to have a plan, have a backup plan, and to think through problems using a solid set of principles. If I know the anatomy, and I understand what the problem is, Dr. Gottlieb would explain that I can apply these problems to all the parts of the human body. His creativity, marathon cases, and wit gave me a wonderful role model to exemplify as I built my career.

Dr. Larry Zachary, his good friend, is a hand surgeon and body contouring specialist. He attended the same hand fellowship as I did, and insisted when he met me as a medical student that I, too, should attend the prestigious fellowship. His compassion for his patients, his love of his job and family, and his belief in me helped boost my confidence and willingness to remain steadfast in achieving my career goals. He supported me throughout my hand fellowship applications and I could see how proud he was when I matched at my top choice (The Curtis National Hand Center). To have the support and belief from those you look up to is priceless, and I am forever grateful for the “Two Larrys” for their early efforts in building the surgeon and person I am today.

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

The book ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card was tremendously influential to me as a child for several reasons. This science fiction book describes the rise of Ender Wiggins, a small boy genius whose gift led him to victory in an intergalactic battle. The book was passed around all my family members, and we each read it voraciously and with great interest. It really helped me bond with my family members and led to sharing other books and interests. I was especially intrigued by the protagonist, Ender, who was small in stature but witty and tough. I sought to emulate because I was small for my age but eager to seek out ways to prove myself. By using this book as inspiration, I felt stronger in my resolution to handle stressful situations and utilize teamwork and opportunities as best as I could.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a Spanish major, I have always been interested in learning about Spanish languages and history. Ultimately, this has led me to participate in four medical missions to the Dominican Republic. These have been wonderfully emotional and satisfying experiences because I am able to treat patients who otherwise would have no options, and understand a different culture and way of living. During the busy week abroad, we assess patients and perform numerous surgeries, such as tendon repairs, fracture treatment, and nerve reconstructions. The patients I treat are truly grateful, content in what they have, and it’s wonderful to see the small changes I can bring during my mission trips.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant to you in your own life?

I have received excellent advice over the years from numerous individuals.

One principle that continues to resonate is a quote I received from a high school coach on the first day of practice. He gave each player a sheet of paper that read, “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it. You are in charge of your attitude.” While challenging at times, reflecting on this statement has served me well to not only acknowledge adversity but also, and more importantly, to overcome it and remain successful by controlling my attitude, mental focus, and perspective.

This is something that repeatedly helps me handle adversity of stress. Difficult surgeries can be easier to navigate by understanding that my reaction and attitude can overcome any obstacle. I know that operating room staff rely on my decision-making, mood, and confidence in order to safely manage surgeries. By remaining calm, clear, and concise in surgery, my attitude can dictate the efficiency and teamwork required in a successful operating room and plastic surgery office. Certain life experiences, such as surprisingly having twin boys, was easier to manage by referring to this quote. Rather than becoming stressed or bewildered, I focused on my reaction, my attitude, and my genuine excitement and enthusiasm. I now have three wonderful boys and am so lucky to have them!

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Plastic Surgeon’’ and why?

1) The 3 A’s still ring true — Available, Affable, Able. What may appear as historic or archaic in need is actually quite alive and fully relevant to be a successful plastic surgeon in the modern social media era.

a. A surgeon needs to be available — they can’t be booked out for months and they can’t avoid seeing their patients. If they’re not able to be seen for consultation or to sit with their postops, their value will lessen and their success will plummet. If they simply pawn off patients to extenders and staff their word of mouth reputation and true attraction as a desired surgeon will falter.

b. A plastic surgeon needs to be affable- people still must like you. Whether it is on social media being funny or clever, or in the consultation room explaining pros and cons of different procedures, there needs to be a sense of confidence, familiarity, and comfort in a plastic surgeon to be successful. Simply put, the patient population and public must see you in a positive light. This may mean contributing work in research, charity, or simply being a positive presence in the workplace. This includes being collegial when taking calls, working with other specialties, and being a reliable, enthusiastic, and enjoyable member of the medical community.

c. Lastly, a modern plastic surgeon must be able. While gimmicky TikTok trends and reels are the latest rage to gain success in social media, at the end of the day a plastic surgeon must truly be skilled at their craft in order to sustain success. This means showcasing successful outcomes without filters and in a controlled setting that will not mislead viewers. This means practicing safe, effective plastic surgery within your scope of practice. While you may have a gorgeous spa or a heavy social media following, true success still relies on happy patients who received exceptional care from a meticulous, hard-working plastic surgeon.

2) Support — Success in plastic surgery isn’t always reliant on the surgeon. The surgeon must also identify, nurture, and embrace a supportive environment to reach their career goals and aspirations. This comes in a variety of ways. In terms of practice, a new plastic surgeon must discover which practice scenario works best for their personality and values — private practice, hospital-based, or combined. For plastic surgeons who want to control the business aspect, including marketing, expenses, and resources, seeking a private practice where they can satisfy their business intellect will be ideal. To do this, they truly must rely on the support of practice managers, injectors, and office staff to present themselves in the way the plastic surgeon desires. This means identifying individuals who will offer support, time, and effort to make your practice a success. For hospital-based doctors, it means identifying an environment that will market and utilize your skills and interests, and not simply use you as another “cog in the wheel.” This means finding supportive administrators and fellow doctors who can market, refer, and help create a fulfilling surgical practice curated to the goals and interests of the surgeon.

The everyday staff in the OR, office, and spa are paramount to success. Identifying support staff, and then equally embracing and supporting their own career goals, is truly a recipe for long term success as a plastic surgeon.

Lastly, support at home outside of work is also essential. Just as you are working hard to create a successful practice, equal time and effort must be placed to create a balanced work life that allows you to spend quality time with your spouse and children. Prioritizing family meals, vacations, and hobbies will go a long way in avoiding burnout, fatigue, and dissatisfaction in your plastic surgery practice.

3) You need to be trendy. The world, particularly social media, medicine, and plastic surgery, are advancing at an incredible rate. Each year there are new trends in social media and in the realm of surgery. It truly is incumbent upon the plastic surgeon to embrace lifelong learning as a way to stay with the times. This means investing time, and often money, in updating and managing social media accounts. While one year it may be one media outlet, the next year may lead to a new app or social media account leading to more viewers and more exposure to your patients.

It also means educating yourself on the latest treatment options, and determining using the evidence and information available whether the safety profile and return on investment are warranted to update your practice with new technology and options. There is an old adage that states, “you don’t want to be 12–15 years into practice performing the same surgeries and treatments as you did when you were in training.” Medicine evolves, and so much you to stay up to date and “trendy” as a successful plastic surgery

4) Authority- You have to find a way to become an authority in a field or niche in plastic surgery. For most plastic surgeons, passing boards and finding a job are the two most important steps in the first years of practice. However, to establish a successful practice, a plastic surgeon must identify a niche or subspecialty that suits their aspirations and interests and, quite simply, become great at it. Plastic surgery affords wonderful opportunity over a diverse field, where you can practice pediatric plastic surgery and treat congenital differences such as cleft lip and palate, you can treat burn injuries, breast cancer, perform microsurgery, and cosmetic surgery. Within each subspeciality, regardless of whether you are in academic practice or private, you must answer the call to become great. To do this, it means dedicating yourself to hone your practice, deliver results, and become an authority on a specific disease or treatment. Once you obtain satisfactory results, build up a patient population pleased with their experiences, your authority on the subject leads to success. Your practice begins to work for you, as your reputation, breadth of work, and volume lead to a practice that grows organically, leading to an exciting practice where your authority in a field can lead to visiting professor talks, national meetings, publications, or simply a robust practice where you can safely treat numerous patients.

5) Swiss Army Knife — Yes, to be a successful plastic surgeon, you have to embrace being a swiss army knife. Now, my hand fellowship director Dr. Jim Higgins demands the credit for coining this term, but it was an incredibly enlightening description of a successful trait in a plastic surgeon. Since plastic surgeons do not “own” a body part, we learn, through our rigorous training, to master all anatomy, all body parts, and to utilize principles and apply them across many facets of patient care. To be a successful plastic surgeon means to embrace the ability to rely on your knowledge of wound healing to offer insight and advice when this arises. This may mean accepting consults or referrals for wound issues, such as postoperative wound dehiscences from other surgeons. In the same way, treating routine issues, such as moles, skin cancers, etc., also serves as “bread and butter” volume that is sure to keep a practice busy. While it is important to serve these patients, it is vital to know that these patients may also become future patients for other reasons. While you may treat a patient for a skin cancer on their face but prefer to treat hand problems within your practice, it is not uncommon for this patient to later have carpal tunnel or a finger or hand injury that then requires treatment in a field you more greatly prefer. By being willing to be “swiss army knife,” where you can adapt, adjust, and use different tools from your plastic surgery toolbox, you undoubtedly will create a busy, successful practice that can shift when needed to problems and areas that are in need of care.

Bonus: 6) Be insightful and self-reflective — It is extremely unlikely to land a job in a perfect location for you and your family, with the preferred practice environment and desired cases. While this may mean a surgeon may need to move or continue to look for their ideal landing spot which becomes available in the future, it also means that a plastic surgeon must remain calm, mindful, and creative. While frustrating to not seeing your practice grow, or impatient with the lack of support of visibility as you embark on your career, it is essential to remain patient and insightful. Try to determine why your practice is limited or struggling. If you can identify the issue, which may be one of the above 4 key pillars of a successful plastic surgery, having the patience and diligence to work through these may pay off dividends. For instance, if you feel that you lack support, seek out help through the ASPS or other societies which can provide a mentor or colleague. If you feel like your practice isn’t offering the latest trendy options, take courses, attend meetings, and talk to other surgeons to learn how to remain updated. If your practice is slow to grow in your perfect ideal subspecialty, lean on the “swiss army knife” philosophy and try to offer your plastic surgery training in other services. If you feel overworked or stretched too thin, take time off and reflect on your journey and appreciate your family, friends, and support at work. Life is short, plastic surgery is a fun, diverse and creative field, and having the correct mindset of being calm and self-reflective will lead to continued success.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a plastic surgeon? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I would like to dispel is that plastic surgery focuses on glamor, vanity, and wealth. That simply is not true. A large subset of plastic surgeons perform reconstructive surgery, for example after trauma of cancer. While plastic surgeons consider the aesthetic in their planning and recommendations, our goal is both form and function. In other words, we utilize our training to return function to injured arms, reconstruct skin after burns, transfer muscles and tendons to allow people to smile after trauma, and rebuild breast and breast cancer surgery. While we don’t own a particular body part, plastic surgeons work to use our training and expertise in anatomy to offer patients second chances and new beginnings, not just to make people “more beautiful” or “skinnier.”

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I think the greatest movement that is neglected the most is self-care. Self-care is of utmost importance, and really combines both physical and mental health. In today’s world, we are all so busy working and following our busy routines. It is too easy to eat unhealthy food, sleep poorly, and treat our bodies less than ideal. If there could be a movement that incorporates truly healthy living by identifying healthy habits, including sleep, diet, exercise, and social treatment of one another, I think we could reach not only a more peaceful and understanding world but also a much healthier one. By providing individuals with a guide or training and educating the world of the importance of self-care, I believe that mental health as well as physical health would improve significantly.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I think it would be fascinating to have an authentic conversation with Elon Musk, who has brought so much change and innovation to the world. His willingness to risk the potential to advance fields has been very exciting to behold. In particular, the electric car transition and option can decrease the reliance on oil, and his space exploration is something that has always fascinated me as an outer space enthusiast. To discuss what he has seen and what he hopes to achieve would be quite thrilling. Oh, and Taylor Swift!

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Readers can follow me on Instagram @sfullersurgerymd; Facebook at Sam Fuller Plastic Surgery; YouTube @DrSamFuller, TikTok @Dr.Sam.Fuller and, of course, my website samfullerplasticsurgery.com.

Thank you so much for these wonderful insights! We wish you continued success.

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