It used to be a job traditionally done by men but not any more. Northern Ireland is about to get its first female plastic surgery consultant — and more women are following her path.
Forget botox and boob jobs, a top team of female plastic surgeons in Northern Ireland is in the front line of treating trauma cases, where surgery is not a choice but a necessity. In an area of medicine that has traditionally been dominated by men, a new generation of women are taking their place in the highly skilled surgical discipline that is not for the faint-hearted.
While the general public often confuse plastic surgery with cosmetic surgery, the work of surgeons such as these is about beating the challenge to try and restore men, women and children to what they looked like before the cancer or trauma rather than physical enhancements.
It takes 14 long years of dedicated on-the-job training to qualify as a consultant plastic surgeon and women make up a third of the 15 trainees currently employed by the NHS in Northern Ireland.
All of the province’s eight plastic surgery consultants are men, but one of the women has just completed her marathon 14-year training stint and is poised to apply to become Northern Ireland’s very first female plastic surgery consultant.
Claire Black, a mum of two with a third on the way, is unfazed by her historic achievement and like the rest of her colleagues, is more interested in clearing up general misconceptions of her profession.
“Women doctors traditionally stayed away from surgical medicine because of work-life balance but that’s changing as roles in the home become more equal,” says Claire.
“The length of time involved in training has also put women off in the past.
“The job is actually very varied and largely people don’t understand what is involved.
“In the minds of the public, plastic equals cosmetic surgery and because of shows like Nip/Tuck and Harley Street, plus constant stories in the media about the latest celebrity operations, it is understandable that people think that is all there is to it.”
But, as the girls explain, their job couldn’t be further removed from the glamorous world of celebrity facelifts.
Trainee Lindsay Damkat-Thomas says: “The job is very diverse, which is one of the reasons why it appealed to me.
“We all work between the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and the Ulster Hospital, and deal with a range of cases from burns victims to cancer patients, limb trauma, cleft lip and palate and all congenital conditions.
“It is a lengthy training process, but it is something which requires time to build up expertise.
“Some cases can be very disturbing. For instance we get quite a lot of young children with bad scalds and body burns, mostly caused by spilt hot liquids. There is as many as three or four of those a week.
“But we are not unique in that. Most areas of medicine experience difficult cases and doctors in A&E, in particular, are usually the first to deal with the major traumas — and some can be distressing.”
If anything is likely to shatter the public misconception that plastic surgery is all about good looks and glamour, then a typical working week as experienced by the Northern Ireland plastic surgeons is it.
Hand trauma, largely caused by industrial accidents, make up the majority of cases, but the girls can also expect to deal with the survivors of attempted suicide and burns victims.
Limb traumas, again largely caused by accidents, many of which involve quad bikes, are also common.
The team has also seen a dramatic increase in skin cancer, with an astonishing 40 cases a week being referred to them.
Breast, head and neck cancer patients also make up a sizeable proportion of the weekly case load.
And facial disfigurements rank high among the more serious cases the team encounter in the course of their work.
Such is the distress for patients that the women have rallied to support the well-known national charity Changing Faces, which is dedicated to supporting and representing people who have disfigurements of the face or body.
The charity launched a branch in Northern Ireland last June and immediately enjoyed a boost to its funds with a sizeable donation raised by local plastic surgeons through a charity ball.
Lindsay explains: “Because we work in three different hospitals with so many colleagues, we felt it would be a good idea to have a ball once a year for staff morale and to give everyone a chance to get together for a good night out.
“We decided to keep it small and so we arranged to have it in Belfast’s Europa for just 100 people.
“We also wanted to combine it with doing something worthwhile for charity.
“Because plastic surgery is so diverse, we felt Changing Faces encompassed a lot of it as it wasn’t just for one particular group of people or one type of injury.
“The work they do in supporting patients and their families and raising awareness by educating the general public and going into local schools to give talks to children is superb.
“It started off with a couple of the girls and then we all got involved.
“The first ball was a great success and we were thrilled to hand over £2,200 to Changing Faces.”
Just finding its feet in Northern Ireland, Changing Faces was delighted to be given such a sizeable boost to its new campaign. The Northern Ireland co-ordinator, Jan Wright, says: “As an organisation we have worked with the medical profession for a number of years and we were particularly pleased to have this support from the doctors in Northern Ireland so soon after we launched in the province.
“In terms of our aim of raising awareness of our organisation and our services so that people who have experience of disfigurement will know there are services out there that can help, the donation got us off to a flying start.”
The girls are now in the process of organising their second, much bigger, gala fundraising ball and hope to further boost funds with a charity auction.
Lindsay says: “James Partridge, who is chairman of Changing Faces and who himself has a facial disfigurement, has agreed to be our guest speaker and we are on the look out for donations for an auction on the night which we hope will raise even more funds.
“We would really appreciate anyone who could donate something for the auction to please get in touch.”
Working directly with patients who have facial disfigurements, the women know how emotional it can be for patients – something that, again, is intensified by public perception.
Claire explains: “Today’s society has very high ideals of what is perceived to be facially acceptable.
“You’ve just got to look at the images of celebrities and the reports of what they have done to make sure they look a certain way. Patients have high expectations and it is our job to ensure from the start that they are realistic.
“Our own expectations for ourselves are incredibly high and we would be very quick to criticise our own work.
“If you do a facial reconstruction and there are complications you are going to feel personally responsible.
“It requires a lot from the patients. They go through a process where expectations change and there is a lot of adjusting to do and a lot of time and effort on their side, as they go through surgery and the process of healing which involves maintaining wounds and scars maturing and maybe more|surgery.
“It can be a very long, slow process and there will be patients who will stop having surgery along the way because of the|pressure.
“We are a relatively small team in Northern Ireland and the consultants are great, giving the trainees a lot of support and time and it helps that we all get on so well together.
“While it is a serious job, we also as colleagues and friends, have a lot of fun at work, and socialise a lot with the boys as well as our female colleagues.”
When it comes to cosmetic surgery the girls have very firm views and advice.
“If anyone wants to have cosmetic surgery done my advice would be to get it done by someone who is appropriately trained,” says Claire.
“You should be satisfied that the surgeon has a certificate of completion of specialist training in plastic surgery.
“It is also important that he or she is resident in Northern Ireland in case of any complications and also to give yourself the best opportunity to ensure a satisfactory outcome.
“To be a cosmetic surgeon there are no specific exams or training scheme, although some institutions will be quite robust in their selection procedure while some won’t, although that is not to say they will not be good at it.
“An easy way to choose a surgeon is to check out the website of the British Association of Plastics Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons.”
All eight NHS consultants have private practices in Northern Ireland and there are three other former NHS consultants here still practising privately.
Locum Consultant Claire Black from Hillsborough. Married with two boys, aged six and three and one on the way.
Specialty Registrar Lindsay Damkat-Thomas is from Belfast and is married.
Staff Grade in Plastic Surgery, Michelle Gibson is from Ballinderry. Married with two boys, aged three and four months.
Specialty Registrar Sandra McAllister lives in Belfast and is planning to marry this Christmas.
Specialist Registrar Kathy McCann, from Crumlin, is mother to a four-month-old girl.
Specialty Registrar Ciara McGoldrick is from Belfast. She is married.
Also helping with the fundraiser is Christine Quinn, a play specialist at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick children.