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Beauty will save the world… people who, day after day, preserve beauty – from the appearance of a particular person to the creation of a charity fund to help people affected by conflict – often remain behind the scenes. One such person is the plastic surgeon Enrique Steiger, whose personality is too big to be contained within the framework of one profession. He gives us the sense that he wants to save the beauty of our world.
– Dr. Steiger, you are a successful master of your craft, a recognized professional. Why did you decide to devote yourself to a charitable project, especially to such a – in both the physical and moral sense – weighty one?
– Time spent in conflict zones has radically changed my philosophy of life, has forced me to think about many things, to rethink a lot of things. That’s why I have focused on charity. About 5 years ago, I established our charity foundation Swisscross. One of our projects is the “Global Medical Corps”. It involves surgeons from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. We have cooperated with a Lebanese university in Beirut and a major international humanitarian organization to build a rehabilitation centre in the Middle East for the victims of wars in the region.
Medical care will be provided to all those who cannot pay for their own treatment, especially if a complex surgical intervention is required. This is not about cosmetic surgery, but about survival and quality of life. For example, if it happens that, as a result of a gunshot wound, the facial apparatus is damaged and a person cannot chew normally, we do everything possible for the person to live a full life. But the main task is to train local doctors so that they can treat patients unassisted using modern medical methods.
– So the new centre will be both a hospital and an educational institution?
– Exactly. There is no sense in constantly visiting and conducting operations. Instead, it is necessary to train local specialists from the region so that they can do everything themselves and be responsible for their own people. Only this sort of scheme has a future. About 15 years ago, I started such a project in Afghanistan. I managed a hospital where there were 7 caretaker personnel: one good Finnish doctor and six medical students, who knew little at that time. Today, these are serious specialists who have served 2.5 million patients!
Our fund operates on the principle of the Red Cross – we are beyond politics, we help everyone, provided that they are nonmilitary – women, children, the elderly. The main goal is to create a circle of highly qualified surgeons capable of working in the midst of military conflicts, especially those who speak Arabic and know the local culture.
– Why did you choose reconstructive surgery as your specialization?
– The selection procedure was gradual. At first I was an ordinary trauma surgeon. Then I moved from emergency surgery to burn surgery. It was fascinating to me: to reconstruct the appearance of disfigured people with my own hands, to feel their gratitude… I wanted to become a doctor of this type, but my boss at the time said, “If you are not a first-class cosmetic surgeon, you will never achieve anything in the field of restorative medicine.” And I started practicing cosmetic surgery too.
I am a supporter of the holistic approach to cosmetic surgery. The patient’s trust is of the highest priority, not their money. I’m a doctor, not a banker. For example, many people want to get themselves some liposuction. I often advise against this, explaining that surgical intervention is not needed – it’s enough just to lose some weight. Patients feel good about this special approach and therefore trust their doctor.
Or another example: surgical intervention is needed, but it will not help if the person continues to lead an unhealthy life. That is, the investment of my time and work will be for nothing – the problems will return sooner or later, and I want the patients to be happy. Therefore, in our clinic there is a large team of doctors: specialists in nutrition and dietology, dermatologists and even psychiatrists. After all, often when a woman wants a facelift, the problem is not with her face, but in the head or in her life circumstances. Maybe her husband is cheating on her, and she wants to win him back. In this case, surgical intervention will not help. It is better to spend money on a holiday, for example, to get reacquainted with someone and be happy.
Plastic surgeons should be doctors, psychologists, and artists simultaneously, and they need to have intuition and many other talents. For me, it is important to first understand what is preventing the person from living happily, and only then to get down to business. It helps also that I worked in emergency surgery. I can look at the patient and see that she has high blood pressure, diabetes, circulatory problems… and I understand that she cannot have surgery, as it could end badly and be dangerous to her health, or even potentially fatal.
– And what do you do in this case?
– I say, “I’m sorry. I would gladly help you, but I do not want to kill you. You are too cute to die.” They will probably go to another clinic and still get the surgery. After all, not every plastic surgeon can immediately evaluate all the risks. But my words will influence some patients, I hope.
– Is surgery your mission?
– This may be true. I like to make changes to people’s faces. I admire the idea. I’m still engaged in all kinds of surgery but in the future I plan to focus fully on the face, because this is the most difficult area to work on. I will not stop operating under any circumstances.
Looking at the faces of my patients, you would never notice that they have had a facelift. They just look very fresh, as if they’ve had a good rest. But there is a boundary beyond which it is impossible to go – this is a question of ethics. After all, it’s not just about one’s appearance. It is important that no one notices that the person has been operated upon. This is the kind of challenge that I like to meet.
I can change your appearance beyond recognition, but nobody cares. People’s natures are more important than how they look, and thus it should be. If you are 65 and you look 45-50, and are still quite dynamic, you will look quite natural. But if at 60 you feel like you are 80, surgery is powerless to help. One woman (today she is 82 years old) wanted an operation on her face. But she was sluggish for her age, had somewhat stooped shoulders, and I refused. I said that I can make her look like a 65 year old. But at the same time, others will perceive her as a 65-year-old, and she will not be able to keep up the pace.
– Many of your colleagues will not agree with you. After all, plastic surgery is also a business, and a very profitable one nowadays.
– You are right; plastic surgery is sold today as a fashionable product, like hairspray or sneakers. But this is medicine! It is necessary to remember ethics, whether you operate on a gallbladder or do a facelift. I refuse to operate on approximately 15% of my patients, for various reasons. When I see a risky case, I ask myself, “If she was my wife or mother, would I operate on her? No”. Then I say “No” to the patient.
Some doctors turn their vocation into a cash cow, but they fall into a trap. For me, it’s more important to sleep well at night. In addition, each happy patient recommends us to two or three more people. Conversely, each dissatisfied one will discourage 10 other potential customers.
– How would you describe your ideal patient?
– I’m interested in those who suffer from very minor defects. A person is much more complicated than we imagine. If the external person and the internal person do not correspond with each other, he or she falls out of balance. Without a valid reason, no one will go under the knife, but if after surgical intervention the patient is happy, then I have achieved my goal.
– Earlier, plastic surgery operations were mainly done on actors, actresses, singers… in a word, famous personalities. Now, more and more people who are not connected to show business are resorting to the services of surgeons. How do you see current trends?
– This is a dynamically growing market. Beauty has become as important as sex, love, food, sleep. Mankind is focused on attractiveness. At the heart of this are millennia of biological development. More attractive individuals can reproduce more easily. Nature, in fact, created beauty for the reproduction of the human race. Its absence is a problem, so many people want something that nature has not bestowed upon them.
In addition, treatment has become less painful and less invasive. Therefore, more and more people are resorting to, and will continue to resort to, such surgical intervention. People of various professions come to my office, from directors of large companies to housewives. Plastic surgery has become a public service. And more and more often, men are thinking about it. Today they are 30 percent of all patients.
– Switzerland is one of the leading countries for cosmetic and plastic surgery. What is the reason for this?
– I would explain this by the fact that the Swiss earn well – they can afford to have plastic surgery.
But the need to change one’s appearance is not always formed by one’s social environment. For example, in Afghanistan, a peasant woman who had never before left her village, who tended sheep, came to me. She wanted me to operate on her eyelids – her eyelids kept her from living a happy life! Or this case from Brazil: an Indian native came to us after travelling 100 km on foot in order to change the shape of his nose. He said that for the previous 20 years he had been fishing, and every time he saw his reflection in the water, his nose annoyed him. These are people untouched by the world of marketing and by adverts claiming that a person is successful only when he or she looks beautiful, so no one can convince me that dissatisfaction with one’s appearance is a problem exclusive to the spoiled rich classes. No, this problem is borne by many ordinary people, from Alaska to the Antarctic.
– Has your wife had plastic surgery?
– My wife and I are the same age, but she has not had any surgery yet. Friends tell her that this is crazy, given that she has a plastic surgeon for a husband. But I love her for who she is, and we will grow old together. If I operate on something for her, it will be only at her request.
When a man comes to me and says that his wife wants to do such-and-such, I ask permission to talk with his wife privately, because if I increase the breasts of a woman at the whim of her husband, then in 20 years she will be stuck with these breasts, but maybe not with the same husband.
– You have another interest – you make films, right?
– Yes, I made my first film before I had even started studying medicine – I was 14 or 15 years old. I was working in television, on an entertainment show. And after many years, I met one producer who persuaded me to take part in the production of a film. So I ended up in Hollywood.
The producers knew that I had worked in Africa for a long time and they wanted to know my opinion about one script – does it correspond with the real state of things, will the film find a response from the viewer? When I said that with the right actors and with a good director it would receive an Oscar, everyone laughed. But the film was fantastic, and it really won an Oscar! Now, as a consultant, I sometimes work with a team of famous Hollywood producers. But it’s just my hobby.
I continue to make documentary films, too. I am proud of one in particular – ‘Watcher of the Sky’. This is the story of Raphael Lemkin, who, having witnessed the Armenian Genocide by the Turks, devoted his whole life to teaching the world about it. But he did not live to see his dream come true.
Doctor of Medical Science, a plastic, aesthetic and reconstructive surgeon, as well as a traumatologist at the Swiss Medical Association (FMH). He studied at the University of Zurich, Los Angeles, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. Together with his partner, Dr. Christ, he heads Сlinic Utoquai in Zurich. Since 1989, he has been working as a doctor in many humanitarian organizations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UN and OSCE in regions of conflict – Namibia, Angola, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and others. He is a visiting lecturer in conflictology at the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich. He is the founder and president of the Swisscross Foundation.
The purpose of the Swisscross Foundation is to protect victims of war and provide them with access to medical care, as well as training doctors and medical staff in hot spots with a small allowance (as a source of subsistence) so that the students will be able to work at a high professional level at the end of the course. Young, highly motivated medical workers, who will not leave the clinic and their patients even in the most risky of situations, are accepted for training. At the same time, they undertake to return the allowance to the Foundation after the completion of the training, in parts if necessary, so that their colleagues from other regions will have the same opportunity. The program has been successfully operating in Chad, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia for 9 years.
A new project in cooperation with AUB (American University of Beirut) and ICRC envisages the establishment of an educational research and medical treatment center where women and children from 5 regions adjacent to Beirut (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Gaza) and who are seriously injured can receive professional medical care and treatment.