A Reconstructive Surgeon's Unique Take on What It Means to "Make Yourself"

7 min read
There's much to take away from this eye-opening interview with Melissa Poh, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who has worked on the frontlines of human resilience.
There's much to take away from this eye-opening interview with Melissa Poh, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who has worked on the frontlines of human resilience.

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The greatest tool in a woman’s toolbox isn’t a cosmetic or a brush. It’s self-determination—the daily commitment you make to yourself and your future, and the hard work and rituals that create the foundation for that journey. Make Your Self is a series that spotlights the stories of women who fiercely embody this relentless pursuit.

You could certainly argue that Dr. Melissa Poh’s career doubles as a masterclass in human resilience. A reconstructive plastic-surgeon based in Los Angeles, Poh spent nearly a decade helping patients through different kinds of trauma before she was tapped to head the transgender surgery program at a major hospital in Los Angeles a few years ago. It’s work that has required her to seek training in a complex procedure that still isn’t taught in most medical school curriculums, and to spearhead one of just a handful of programs of its kind across the country.

But it has also allowed her to offer access to a life-changing surgery that was prohibitively expensive to most just a few years ago—in effect, offering a front row seat to stories of unthinkable perseverance. “In the past, these surgeries were not really at academic institutions,” she says. “They were done in private practices. And unfortunately it wasn't covered by insurance, so patients would have to pay out of pocket. You learn a lot of the hardships that people have gone through, especially the older trans women or trans men and what they had to endure to get to where they are today.”

When Poh entered medical school at Georgetown University, it was with the intention of becoming an OB-GYN. That all changed when she went on her surgery rotation, “just to get it out of the way.” Spoiler alert: She was hooked. “It didn’t even compare,” she says.

After deciding on general surgery for her residency at Duke, a mentor introduced Poh to transplant surgery, and she found herself drawn to the meticulousness of this particular specialty. This, along with a surgical oncology rotation, would ultimately lay the initial foundation for Poh’s career as a reconstructive plastic surgeon.

Though her path has certainly evolved since that pivotal moment in med school, Poh has never questioned her fate as a surgeon. “It was one of those things that just really spoke to me,” she says. “I loved every minute of it. I never looked at the clock. I wanted to see everything, do everything.”

It’s an insatiety for learning that has never left Poh, which might explain why she was the perfect candidate to help pioneer her current program. Even if long-standing barriers made the path to this particular specialty more convoluted than most, going out of her way to be among the best in her field was already central to her MO—especially if it ultimately meant helping those who were particularly vulnerable. That’s not even to mention the education in tenacity that Poh’s patients provide to her.

Below, Poh shares an intimate look at some of the most valuable lessons she’s taken away from the frontlines of stigma and strength, and how her thirst for learning helps her feel fulfilled outside of her practice, too.

Melissa Poh Interview

On leading (and learning) a still-evolving specialty…

“[Gender affirmation surgery isn't yet something that's usually taught in any curriculum. I just went around and trained and learned different techniques. We had some people come from Michigan, I went to conferences and Amsterdam, trained with a person in North Cal, went to Thailand, and then built a program with getting a urologist and a clinical social worker and a case manager and creating a multidisciplinary clinic. And so that is what I've started—it’s a large portion of my practice right now. I still do reconstructive surgery, but because this is so new and I'm at the head of it, this is what I do a lot.

“And so it was a little hard to learn because one, people weren't really doing it and then there were certain people in private practice that wouldn't offer to teach me or let me come and observe them in the operating room because we were basically a competing business. They wouldn't share ideas and share knowledge, which was very frustrating.

“I just had to keep knocking on people's doors and cold call people and ask around and stuff like that. I had to be very proactive in trying to find people that would help me. Surgery isn’t just something that you can just read in a book—it’s best if you can go and watch a surgery and even scrub in to feel tissue and understand the planes and the three dimensional change.”

On learning from her patients…

“[The patients] now have something that's covered by insurance, and can finally match up their identity with their physical sex and feel whole. They’re also putting a lot of trust in us because they know we're a young program.

“But we learn from them too. Some of the stories are amazing. There are patients who undergo surgery and on the last day they're in the hospital, they look at you and you can tell that deep in their eyes that they're offering you their heart because they're so thankful that someone has helped them in a way that's not taking advantage. It's very rewarding.”

On redefining what it means to be resilient…

“I see patients right after they've been diagnosed with something [life-altering] and their mind is spinning at 200 miles an hour—you’re not only thinking about treatment, but also [wondering] what is going to get you back to your normal life?

“If there's some hiccup in the road, you make a detour in your pathway. Everyone tries to redirect to get back onto their normal routine. This is where everyone is comfortable talking about ritual and making yourself—everyone has some kind of pattern that feels very satisfying. So when you do get thrown off the path, you want to redirect to try to get back. That’s where I come in: trying to get these patients or these people back on track; feeling whole or feeling like themselves again."

On her dynamic approach to self-care…

“When you're a resident, you just subject yourself to be a person of the hospital or the program. And when I became an attending—when I graduated from everything and finally had my own practice—I knew that I wanted to come to a city that offered a lot of culture and activities. And so LA was good in that regard and I was very big on making sure I had balance. It's very easy to be tired and come home and just sit on the couch, but it's important in my eyes to still go be active and do stuff outside of work and outside of the house.

“I travel. I have a bucket list and I try to get to all these bucket list places, a few every year. I don't cook a lot, but I like to eat, so I love it when other people cook. I like to read. Just something that stimulates your mind outside of your everyday practice.”

“My mom has this motto that you're never too old to learn. Last year, I learned how to get certified for scuba diving. When I moved to LA, I learned how to surf. These kinds of things. [it’s about] just having an appetite for just what's out there, and choosing to explore.”

On defining what it means to make yourself…

“It’s finding what you’re passionate about and just continuing to do that. Never feel like you're finished. Just always go look for something new, something different. You never know where you're going to get inspiration or see something new.”


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