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Black History Month: An Interview With Dr. Paul Thesiger

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“My time with ReSurge was the best year of my academic and professional life and it has shaped me as a human being and a doctor.”

Black History Month honors the incredible contributions that Black communities have made throughout American history — from the activist to the artist; the creator to the pioneer. This Black History Month, we’re interviewing ReSurge medical volunteers who are pioneers both in the medical field and the humanitarian world.

We caught up with Dr. Paul Thesiger, owner and surgeon at Thesiger Plastic Surgery in Maryland, and a ReSurge International medical volunteer and former Webster Fellow.

Where were you born and raised?

I spent my first 18 years in Jamaica and came to the U.S. for college at the age of 18.

What inspired you to become a physician?

My Dad was a psychiatrist and was pretty well known in the Caribbean. He was a great father to us and definitely was my inspiration. When it came time for college, my mom told me that becoming a doctor was a good option. I liked the intellectual challenge and service potential as well

What was it like going into your field as a Black surgeon?

I started in the field around 1999 and there were not many Black people in my field at that time, however, this is slowly changing. We still have a lot to do to recruit more women and minorities in fields such as neurosurgery, orthopedics, ophthalmology. I did general surgery training at Howard University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). The hospital has trained doctors for centuries now. There is a role model set there. The chairman was a very big advocate for his residents. I did very well in my training and consider myself lucky. My professor advocated for me to do training in Miami as he wanted to diversify the department at the time. I did one year of hand surgery. I was accustomed to there being not too many who looked like me in the field. I was also the first Black Webster Fellow for ReSurge in 2002.

Did you face any obstacles?

Yes, there were many obstacles. When I was recruited to Miami, there were many subtle hints of racism, and some not so subtle. I would brush these hints of racism off or think that they were “strange”. Some examples included faculty affiliates who were not too pleased with me being there and took small digs toward me at a conference where I presented. I would pretend not to notice or see it. Training was hard no matter who you were and no matter what your skin tone was. I kept my eyes forward and kept moving.

How did you first hear about ReSurge?

I saw a bulletin board in the residents’ library with an advertisement for the ReSurge International Webster Fellowship. It went out to all training programs. This was a dream opportunity. My fiance was in a different city, so I immediately called her and told her of the fellowship–an opportunity where I would travel around the world. She said, “If this is something in your heart, the year will pass quickly.” Dr. Anthony Woulfe, a renowned craniofacial specialist who trained with Dr. Ralph Mallard called Dr. Dave Dingman, the ReSurge Chief Medical officer at the time to recommend me. I was picked for the fellowship.

Dr. Thesiger on a ReSurge Trip to Burma

What is your most memorable ReSurge trip or patient from the field?

My fellowship allowed me to perform at least 300 cases. However, the one that sticks out the most for me was my second trip to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. At this time, I was getting very good results and I was hitting my stride. At the end of the trip, they ran out of supplies, including anesthesia gas. The interpreters spoke to the parents and children, who were waiting in the courtyard, telling them that we could do a few more surgeries. We had good interpreters, but we had more patients than we could handle. The moms became very distraught. They started crying. One young girl, about 7 years of age, had a deformity on her lip. It was not a cleft. It was a tumor or a hemangioma, we didn’t have pathology to check, however it was grossly deformed and she was severely ostracized. Her mother locked eyes with me and said with a look, “can you please remove this from my daughter’s lip?” I will never forget this moment or the palpable look from this mother. I just nodded, though I didn’t know how to proceed. I asked myself, “what are you going to do, Paul”? The only thing I could do was pray that I would do the right thing – that it would get removed from her mouth. After surgery, she looked magnificent. I now have a child with special needs, perhaps this trip was preparing me for my special needs child.

What advice do you give others who would like to pursue a career in the medical field?

If you have a burning desire to serve people and you’re not afraid of sacrificing your own time, then 150%, do it – the rewards are many. Serving others is the experience that rewards you, financial gain is seen later. We need good people who care. This work is not for the faint of heart. People who started out afraid, who fainted in class, became the best surgeons. The people who are emotionally invested stay the course. There are good people out there! ReSurge restored my faith in humanity.

What is your message of hope for the global surgery movement?

That there is hope, and that this movement exists. The world is at an inflection point right now. This pandemic has shown us how fragile human life is. The mission of ReSurge is to expand people’s access to surgical care. If you have the resources, we have the DUTY TO HELP THOSE WHO ARE STRUGGLING. We cannot just sit there – we must do it if we’re given the privilege. I am an optimist and we’re going to be okay.

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