Washington University plastic surgeon inspired by harrowing experience

Story courtesy of the East Oregonian newspaper, Pendleton, Ore.

John FelderJohn Felder, MDUntil a boat propeller tore into his legs and buttocks, the idea of becoming a plastic surgeon wasn’t anywhere on John Felder’s radar.

Dr. Felder joined the staff of Alton Memorial Hospital this fall. But his journey began after a waterskiing mishap in Florida in 1999. Then 16 years old, Felder drove the ski boat that day, but fell into Perdida Bay after he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel to look over his shoulder at the skier he was pulling.

The wheel unexpectedly jerked hard in one direction and the teenager was launched into the water. He and his friend, both unhurt, dogpaddled and watched the boat making lazy circles around them. Felder swam to the boat, grabbed on and started pulling himself up over the side.

He slipped, however, and sank into the bay.

Feeling the propeller sucking him in, he dove, but not fast enough — the propeller blades sliced into his backside. A man who saw the accident called for help. The boy was plucked out of the crimson water and airlifted to a hospital with broken bones and damage to muscle, nerve and deep tissue.

If not for the accident, he never would have met Ian Rogers, MD, a Pensacola, Fla., plastic surgeon who repaired the damage. Dr. Rogers later got national media interest after he reattached an 8-year-old Mississippi boy’s arm after a 7-foot-long bull shark bit it off near Pensacola Beach. Meanwhile, conversations with the gregarious and talented surgeon kick-started Dr. Felder’s own desire to help trauma victims.

“He made an impression on me,” Dr. Felder said. “The light bulb went off.”

That impression, along with a sense of responsibility triggered by the boating accident, attracted him to plastic surgery.

“My memory of the accident has never been traumatic or frightening,” he said. “It gave me the perspective that I’m just lucky to be here. I know I’m living on borrowed time and have a debt to repay.”

Dr. Felder said he loves the diversity of his chosen specialty, everything from nerve repair and fixing cleft palates to burn reconstruction and reattaching limbs.

“When people think of plastic surgery, they tend to think of cosmetic surgery,” he said. “But it’s so much broader in reality.”

During medical school, Dr. Felder spent a week interning with Dr. Rogers, helping the Florida surgeon with a mixture of cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries.

Dr. Felder’s focus is trauma reconstruction. He said the profession brings a constant stream of challenges, maybe a motorcycle accident victim with “bones sticking out and not enough skin and muscle to cover the bones. A plastic surgeon might be called in to transplant muscles and connect nerves.”

Dr. Felder recently returned from a stint in Cambodia with Operation Smile, which provides free surgery for children in more than 60 countries. Dr. Felder and his fellow surgeons did 100 cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries.

“It was a transformative experience for me,” he said. “It got me out of my bubble. There is a whole other world out there.”

Dr. Felder’s last contact with his mentor came six years ago on Match Day, the day medical students all around the country learn with which residency program they are matched. Dr. Felder, then finishing his medical degree at Baylor College of Medicine, called Dr. Rogers to share the exciting news of his match with Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. The conversation was their last.

“He unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack a week later,” Dr. Felder said.

Dr. Felder just completed a fellowship in peripheral nerve and hand surgery at Washington University. When his medical loans are paid, he is considering taking his skills overseas.

“I’d like to work abroad in a country with a lot of need and not a lot of resources,” he said. “Somewhere where the need is obvious and palpable.”

Mary Felder, his mother, told the East Oregonian newspaper that her son’s positive and humble attitude reminds her of Dr. Rogers, who didn’t take credit for putting her son back together.

“When we thanked him,” Mary recalled, “he said, ‘I didn’t do it. God guided my hand.’”

Dr. Felder is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. His practice is based at Alton Memorial Hospital.