A new chapter begins for the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery with the arrival of Division Chief Justin Sacks.
Sacks, the Shoenberg Professor of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, comes from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he was Vice Chair of Clinical Operations and Director of Oncological Reconstruction in the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Sacks completed medical school at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, followed by fellowships in microsurgery research and hand and upper extremity surgery at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, as well as a microvascular cancer reconstruction fellowship at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He was faculty at the MD Anderson Cancer Center prior to joining Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Joining the division, Sacks looks forward to continuing a busy career in surgery. Sacks is no stranger to the demands of an academic medical campus of excellence. For the past decade, Sacks operated on patients at Johns Hopkins, where he also ran a research lab and co-founded a biotech company that develops tissue scaffolding for use in restoring soft tissue to patients.
Excellence from Head to Toe
“This is a historical division at Washington University,” Sacks states. The Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery has a long history at Washington University, which Sacks appreciates. “Some of the founding figures of plastic surgery have been division chiefs here.”
Among those founders is Vilray Blair, the first chief of the division, whose expertise in reconstructive surgery led to the development of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons. Blair and other surgeons in this division have contributed to many innovations, including cleft lip repair, full-thickness skin grafts, surgical burn management and oncologic reconstruction.
The division is a leader in academics, training the next generation of surgeons for careers in plastic and reconstructive surgery. “This is a premier hospital and medical school with incredible medical students,” Sacks says. The 6 year residency program trains surgeons in reconstruction, teaching them to put the body back together after cancer or trauma, while also emphasizing research and leadership skills.
Sacks describes the role of a plastic surgeon as providing the best possible care to all patients, in a multidisciplinary setting, and being prepared to “operate head to toe. Any cancer or trauma that happens in the hospital, we work with the other divisions and departments.”
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “plastic surgery” is aesthetic surgery. Aesthetic surgery refers to procedures performed to reshape normal structures of the body in order to improve their appearance.
“We have some great aesthetic surgeons within our division,” Sacks says. Surgeons Terrence M. Myckatyn, MD, and Marissa M. Tenenbaum, MD, offer a host of procedures at West County Plastic Surgeons of Washington University. “Their role is so important,” Sacks emphasizes, “because they deliver high-level aethetic surgery, understand patients’ motivations and teach future surgeons how to do it all.”
Plastic surgery also encompasses reconstructive procedures—operations performed on abnormal structures of the body. “Plastic and reconstructive surgery really is the lead specialty in putting the body back together,” Sacks says. Reconstructive surgery addresses bodily defects, which can be caused by cancer, traumatic injury, birth defect and other conditions. For many patients, reconstructive surgery is a path back to normal life after oncological treatment or severe trauma.
As Division Chief, Sacks sees aesthetic and reconstructive surgery both as integral to the division’s success. “You should look at the patient the same way whether they have a cancer defect, traumatic defect, congenital defect, or cosmetic defect,” Sacks states. “You treat the patient the same way once you do the surgery.”
A Life Transformed
Sacks was raised in Brooklyn. His father taught for the New York City public school system before advancing to administration and operations, and now serves as an associate dean at the City University of New York. His mother—a former New York University linguistics professor—is the CEO of her own marketing firm. Having parents with such esteemed careers has instilled in Sacks the importance of hard work and embracing opportunities to grow.
“If you’re not challenging yourself every day,” Sacks asserts, “you can become complacent.”
This aversion to complacency is reflected in Sacks’s own career. After high school—in the public school system his father oversaw—he attended Cornell University. Early in life, Sacks had a couple of ideas for potential career paths: “I either wanted to be an architect or a doctor,” he recalls. Architecture appealed to Sacks, he says, because it was a way to “take an idea and transform it into something real.”
New Division Chief Sacks brings years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
Ultimately, Sacks pursued medicine because he wanted to help others. Plastic and reconstructive surgery was a natural fit, because of the focus on creation and transformation. Sacks first realized this as a medical student working on a difficult surgical case. A patient was left with an oncological defect after her cancer treatment. Sacks remembers feeling unsure what would happen next. Would the patient live the rest of her life with this defect caused by her cancer? “The plastic surgeon walks in,” Sacks says, remembering that definitive moment. “The mood changed.” There was new hope among the doctors treating this patient. The plastic surgeon reconstructed the areas affected by the cancer, and Sacks saw his path.
On the Horizon
Transitioning comes with its share of challenges. Sacks, who brings with him a wife and two children, is familiar with these challenges. He has lived in 5 states over the last 30 years, and finds that each move is more difficult than the last, as his children grow and his career becomes rooted in research at each institution. His wife Bethany Sacks, who is also a busy surgeon with a specific focus on medical student and resident education, will join the Section of Minimally Invasive Surgery in Aug. of this year.
Despite the difficulty of moving, Sacks has found that each transition provides an opportunity to grow. “I enjoy the process of moving,” he says. “It allows you to recalibrate and refocus your energies.”
Sacks plans to use this energy to grow the division while staying true to what makes it excel.
“Susan Mackinnon and Matt Wood have run a very successful peripheral nerve research lab,” Sacks says, recognizing one of the strengths of the division. Mackinnon, the previous division chief, performed the first donor nerve transplant in history, and continues to develop innovative nerve transfer techniques. Wood’s research at the Peripheral Nerve Research Laboratory has improved the treatment options available to surgeons at the medical school. From this strong foundation, Sacks sees great opportunities for the future of plastic and reconstructive surgery. “We are going to expand on what is already established and grow tissue engineering and biomedical innovation,” he says.
Upper extremity surgery is a thriving part of the division, with Mitchell Pet, MD, and Amy Kells, MD, PhD, both offering treatment. Pet specializes in hand and wrist surgery and does innovative work in carpal bone mechanics. Kells, who joined the division this March, has a PhD in pathology in addition to her extensive medical training. These surgeons work alongside Ida Fox, MD, who restores limb function to patients with paralysis in their extremities, and John Felder, MD, a leading surgeon in limb salvage operations, who performs targeted muscle reinnervation.
The division is also home to the Executive Director of the American Board of Plastic Surgery—Keith Brandt, MD. Brandt—the William G. Hamm Professor of Surgery—performs oncological breast reconstruction surgery for the division.
Sacks is excited to see the growth and development of all faculty in the division. Thomas Tung, MD, performs oncological microvascular breast reconstruction and does transplant research. Kamlesh Patel, MD, is a surgeon at Children’s Hospital, who operates on children with craniofacial anomalies.
Collaboration and innovation are on the horizon for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
In addition to his medical training, Sacks earned an MBA from the Carey School of Business at Johns Hopkins University. He advanced toward this degree gradually while working at Johns Hopkins, attending one night or weekend class each semester. “I made sacrifices,” Sacks admits, “but I never stopped.” His focus was on health care management, which afforded him a better understanding of how the health care system works. Sacks wanted this understanding as a basis for improving on health care while delivering the best head to toe cancer and trauma reconstruction outcomes for patients.
“The word plastic comes from the Greek plastikos,” Sacks says, “meaning to mold or shape or change form.” Change and transformation are at the heart of plastic and reconstructive surgery, and Sacks sees this as an exciting time to be part of this division at Washington University. Head to toe cancer, traumatic and aesthetic reconstruction will be key drivers of clinical, education and research programs.
“We are looking to build out our portfolio in oncological reconstruction by working with our colleagues,” Sacks says. Future collaboration with faculty across the medical school will help expand the services offered by Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Sacks also aims to develop more limb preservation and prosthesis options for patients, perform lymphedema surgery, expand the opportunities for pediatric surgery with Alison Snyder-Warwick, MD—whose facial reanimation surgery has helped St. Louis area children reach their full potential—and offer vascularized composite allotransplantation for patients needing hand, face and abdominal wall transplants. As the specialty continues to grow and change shape, new possibilities propel the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery into the future of medicine.