Despite Being Learning Disabled and Flunking Out of 10th Grade, Dr. Steven Cohen Revolutionized Facial Surgery
“Every day I stand back in amazement that I was able to learn these things and take care of another human being.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven R. Cohen MD, Medical Director and Owner, FACES+Plastic Surgery, Skin and Laser Center, La Jolla California, Clinical Professor, Plastic Surgery, University of California, San Diego. Dr. Cohen trained at the leading institutions in the United States, including Columbia Presbyterian (General Surgery); NIH (Cardiac Surgery); Dartmouth (General Surgery), University of Pennsylvania (Plastic Surgery) and UCLA (Craniofacial and Facial Plastic Surgery). Following 10 years of intense training, Dr. Cohen was offered a job at the University of Michigan, where he went on to found the Center for Craniofacial Anomalies. Dr. Cohen was then recruited to Atlanta Plastic Surgery, which at the time was one of the leading private practice groups in the nation, founded by Dr. Carl Hartramph, the inventor of the TRAM breast reconstruction. From Atlanta, Dr. Cohen moved to San Diego and founded the Center for Craniofacial Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital and FACES+, one of the first comprehensive Aesthetic practices in the U.S., offering the complete range of skin care, lasers and surgery along a continuum of care from preventation to maintenance and from non-surgical to surgical. Dr. Cohen has been involved in innovation his entire career motivated by one thing: taking complex surgeries and treatments and making them simpler, safer and easier for the patient. In 1994 in his friend’s garage, they made the first commercially distributed internal distraction device, which is still sold by Stryker. In 2000, Dr. Cohen along with his former medical partner, founded LeonardoMD, the 3rd or 4th cloud computing software in the medical space. In 2000, Dr. Cohen and his team at Rady performed the 2nd or 3rd endoscopic craniosynostosis repair (this surgery was done in 30 mins with no blood transfusion and the patient was discharged the next day vs. 4–6 hours of surgery, ICU, blood transfusions and 5–7 days in the hospital). In 2003, Dr. Cohen performed the first injection of adipose derived stem cells for the treatment of facial aging and the third such injection ever performed. In 2004, Dr. Cohen was the 2nd surgical practice and 14th practice in the world to adopt the fractional laser. Presently, what Dr. Cohen is excited about is this new concept of facial maintenance and facial anti-aging using the patient’s own tissues and cells from fat to replace and regenerate tissue and blood supply while addressing loses in facial soft tissue and bony volume that occur as we decay.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Yitzi, I have a few, but probably the most significant backstory for me is the fact that I am “learning disabled” and flunked out of 10th grade. I had to go to a military school and fortunately I was able to get into a decent college. Since I had promised my grandmother and mother that I would be the next doctor after my uncle, an orthopedist, drowned skin diving at age 40, I tried very hard to overcome my learning issues, but struggled with the sciences and math until Organic chemistry, which was very simple, because, it was visual. I majored in English and took mainly independent study so I could write short stories and poetry and if nothing else, get A’s for effort, and maybe for content and creativity. With this background I gradually trained myself to learn science by visualizing processes and events and ultimately, I made it through medical school. One other event occurred during my second year of surgical training at Columbia. While home for a brief vacation, I met a woman from France, a niece of friends of my parents. I took her out on my birthday in Washington DC and while sitting and kissing in my dad’s car at the end of a great night, we were robbed at gunpoint and while I was put into the trunk, my date began yelling and was shot point blank in the head and died almost immediately. This shattered my belief in the foundations of my life and as I began to fill the cup up with one drop at a time, I only filled it with drops that made me feel good and made me feel that I was making a contribution.
Yitzi: Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on?
Right now, 2 projects: One, that we spoke about is Injectable Tissue or Facial Regeneration. I think this concept applies to all aspects of aging and overuse and possibly to genetically determined diseases. In that I mean, just as the face ages and manifests sun damage, volume loss and laxity as a protective layer, other tissues are also subjected to wear and tear, such as the knees for instance. If, instead of treating facial volume decay with fillers, we use the patient’s own tissues, we can replace losses in anatomically distinct areas with virtually the same tissue that is decaying. So in replacing the deep and superficial fat loss with our fat taken out with a simple “fat draw” like a blood draw, the fat is then cleaned and modified into 3 products with different parcel sizes (millifat, microfat and nanofat), and these can be injected like a filler into the exact compartment where the fat is lost. In doing so we restore volume to the face and we make new capillaries and we reverse some of the aging seen in elastin and collagen. Hence, we actually reduce the rate of decay. We are excited to see if these approaches can be shown to influence aging in the cell and are working with folks at UCSD to see if biomarkers on the chromosome for aging are affected in a positive fashion. I am sure they will be since we are bringing in a new blood supply. If you compare this to the fillers on the market, none of them have much influence on tissue or cell health and aging or decay, they look pretty, while our tissues continue to age.
Yitzi: Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and others that have been “synthesizers” of knowledge and have taken what others have seen and put these things together in a way that benefits society and generates income. I think Albert Einstein summed it up for me: few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts. My world is a bit like maybe Mozart’s. The leaders are sometimes folks who are nice and politic, but not always creative and disruptive and often, those in charge for instance of education, might suppress new ideas rather than promote them, especially if they are a bit different from the prevailing norms.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Every day I help people. Every day I stand back in amazement that I was able to learn these things and take care of another human being. For one, I guess, I never had that much confidence so I never assumed these things should be taken for granted, but on the other hand, what motivates me as a doctor and person is to bring love to the world. As silly as that sounds, that is also why I paint. With so few people in the world willing to step away from the herd and think for themselves, it seems more important than ever to shout out from the heart and soul and bring some kind of music or poetry to the world. Maybe in opening up my heart others will learn to open theirs and the world might be better. In addition, I sell my paintings and donate the money for Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, a charity providing free care to children and young adults with facial deformities.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1. You are not stupid
2. You are not dumb
3. You are not a C student
4. You have something to contribute
5. Your unique background may have deprived you of many accolades, but on the other hand, it will make you develop your own skills and creativity that will allow you to enjoy the world and people in ways many cannot imagine.
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. 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 see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
At the moment, I might want to meet Richard Branson. In reading his biography, although I am not an adrenaline junky with my own life, I am with my career and my thoughts. I really admire his innate way of making things “win-win” so everyone benefits and I truly love the rebel in him since I am the same way.