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Noted Plastic Surgeon Becomes Director of Center for Pediatric Craniofacial Surgery

New York (Jun 25, 2009)

Dr. Samuel Rhee
Dr. Samuel Rhee

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center has recently welcomed Samuel Rhee, MD, as Director of the Pediatric Craniofacial Center, a multidisciplinary program that offers comprehensive care including corrective surgery for deformities of the skull, face and jaw.

The Craniofacial Center, made possible by a generous gift to the Hospital from NewYork-Presbyterian trustee David H. Komansky and his wife Phyllis Komansky, provides advanced care to children with facial conditions and complex facial deformities in three main areas: congenital birth defects, trauma, and tumor or abnormal growth. The Center brings together experts in plastic and reconstructive surgery, neurosurgery, ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, and otolaryngology/head and neck surgery.

Dr. Rhee most recently served as Director of Craniofacial Surgery at New Jersey Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He recently discussed his reasons for coming to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. "I think that New York is one of the greatest places to provide healthcare," he says. "You see the most research, the most advanced practitioners, and so I feel if you want to make a difference in healthcare, particularly on the academic side, you need to be in a place where you are surrounded by experts, by specialists, by people who are advancing the field. NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell is one of these places, and I saw this position as an opportunity to collaborate with special people."

Dr. Rhee, who is also Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Weill Cornell Medical College, attended Duke University, where he graduated cum laude in Philosophy and Biology. After graduating with honors from Duke University, he received his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed a residency in general surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Subsequently, he completed an NIH-funded research fellowship and residency in plastic surgery at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Rhee worked with renowned craniofacial surgeon Dr. Henry Kawamoto, Jr. and completed a craniofacial surgery fellowship at UCLA in Los Angeles.

Making a Difference in Children's Lives

Board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, Dr. Rhee's clinical expertise includes a wide range of cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery. "I had I always been interested in pediatrics," says Dr. Rhee. "I felt you could make some of the biggest differences in patients' lives on the pediatric side. When I worked with mentors – some of whom are now in their 70s – they would see some of their patients grow up, finish college and go to work as professional photographers, as engineers, and so on. To see that was really rewarding, and it was something I wanted to be involved in."

Regarding his desire to pursue craniofacial surgery, Dr. Rhee explains, "The face is incredibly complicated – it really is a window to the soul. You look at someone and judge who they are and what they are by what their face looks like, not necessarily what their leg or arm looks like. You get a sense of someone's personality of how they express themselves by looking at their face. Yet it doesn't matter how beautiful the face is if it doesn't work. I feel if one is going to be a plastic surgeon and work with form, proportion, and aesthetics, you have to be comfortable with craniofacial surgery."

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Address Complex Conditions

As director of the Craniofacial Center, Dr. Rhee brings together the full range of expertise and multiple specialists together to care for patients with complicated craniofacial issues. "Each month, we see these patients together and create a plan that addresses their all aspects of their overall care," says Dr. Rhee. "It is easy with a patient who has an overwhelming craniofacial or cleft condition to miss out on other issues – what kind of burdens are the parents facing; how can we help them with social concerns; we have been concentrating on the mouth, but how is their eye development? All of these issues need to be addressed on an interactive basis – that is really what craniofacial care is about.

"The people that I interact with on a daily basis here are certainly the tops in their profession," continues Dr. Rhee. "The care that we are providing at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell is unsurpassed – our critical care people, neurosurgeons, pediatric anesthesiologists, our geneticists. Clearly, craniofacial care is very complex and we want to make parents feel comfortable – that is one of our overriding goals helping parents deal with so many issues that can seem overwhelming. Our goal is to allow these children to reach their full potential – not be hindered or hampered or feel that a facial deformity is a central part of their life. We want to make sure that they are as happy and healthy and normal as any child should be." Applying the latest technologies and procedures to advance the field of craniofacial surgery, Dr. Rhee and colleague Mark M. Souweidane, MD, Director of Pediatric Neurological Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, and Associate Professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, are pursuing minimally invasive surgical techniques with smaller incisions and less blood loss in treating craniostosis. The premature closure or fusion of the skull bones in infants, craniostosis is a serious condition that slows or stops the growth of the skull, preventing further brain growth and contributing to developmental disabilities. A craniectomy – the surgical procedure for removing a part of the skull, called a bone flap, to relieve intracranial pressure – is generally required.

"Typically and for most children under a year, it is a fairly invasive surgery," says Dr. Rhee. "For some patients, however, the minimally invasive approach has shown a lot of promise. Dr. Souweidane has been a great proponent of this approach, and it is something we are going to continue to explore."

Dr. Rhee lectures regularly on craniofacial and plastic surgery across the country. He has published research on topics including serious facial injuries and distraction osteogenesis, a surgical technique used to reconstruct skull and facial bone deformities. He has a special interest in the use of biosynthetic materials in craniofacial reconstruction and the use of minimally invasive surgical techniques.

International Outreach

Dr. Rhee also regularly leads international volunteer surgical missions to countries including Bangladesh and Colombia to teach surgeons and to treat children with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other craniofacial conditions. "We can't bring all these children to the U.S. for care, but we can certainly bring the training and the technology to these surgeons overseas and allow them to innovate, to develop, to treat these patients properly," adds Dr. Rhee.

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