Plastic Surgeon Brings Innovation to Craft

When Matthew Schulman, MD, was a young boy he liked taking things apart and putting them back together. He describes it as having a surgeon's mentality.

When Matthew Schulman was a young boy he liked taking things apart and putting them back together. He describes it as having a surgeon’s mentality.

“You can always pick out a surgeon early on in medical school,” he says. “I think I always had the personality to be a surgeon, because surgeons like to fix things.”

Today, Schulman is a renowned New York City board-certified plastic, reconstructive, and cosmetic surgeon. And he’s still fixing things, albeit from more of an artistic perspective.

“When you take out an appendix, the only challenge is how fast you can do it,” Schulman explains. “There’s only so much leeway and freedom to deviate from the textbook. With plastic surgery, it’s completely different. Every case is completely different. No 2 breast augmentations are exactly the same. No 2 tummy tucks are exactly the same. And I never know exactly what I’m going to do until I’m actually doing it.”

Being innovative

Schulman says that the procedures performed in plastic surgery have been around for a long time. As such, the only way to advance the field is to advance those same procedures. That means either coming up with a procedure that provides a better result, or one that offers the same result but with less discomfort and recovery time.

“Everybody wants quick,” Schulman says. “They want minimally invasive, and they want quick. But the dilemma is when you do something less invasive you tend to sacrifice a little bit of the result.”

That’s where the innovator in Schulman comes into play. The doctor has invented the Smooth Tuck procedure, which removes fat, excess skin, and improves the shape of the abdomen with significantly less downtime than a traditional Tummy Tuck, as well as the Scoop Lift, which enhances buttock contouring. And he recognizes that every case he handles is a potential learning situation.

“That’s why they call it the practice of medicine,” he says. “Patients don’t want to hear that we’re practicing on them; we say, ‘We’re honing our skills.’ It’s like being an athlete where you’re trying to perfect your skills so that you can do things more efficiently. I want every case I do to be better than the one before it.”

That attention to detail is particularly important in procedures such as liposuction. Schulman says it’s an easy procedure to do, but difficult to do well. Contour irregularities and unevenness are problematic results that can be difficult to fix.

“When I’m teaching my residents, I always tell them that people just think, ‘Oh, liposuction is just, you just suck up some fat. It’s easy,’ because it looks really easy to do,” he explains. “But I tell them it’s very, very difficult to do well.”

Diversity and learning

Schulman’s expertise has spread well beyond the boundaries of the United States. The doctor has patients from Nigeria, Europe, and the Middle East flying to New York to meet with him. He also routinely performs procedures on celebrities, and says he enjoys having that diversity of clientele.

Walk into the waiting room at Schulman’s practice and it’s not unusual to see a patient from Dubai sitting next to a kindergarten teacher, who’s sitting next to a corrections officer, who’s sitting next to someone who recently hosted an awards show. The doctor says it keeps things fresh, and keeps him on his toes.

“Dealing with a lot of different patients from different backgrounds means I have to be able to relate to each of them,” he explains. “There are a lot of doctors who make themselves out to be celebrity doctors, who don’t know how to deal with a normal person; the patient who is trying to get every penny they have together so they can afford the surgery. I think it says a lot about me and my staff that we’re able to deal with people from very different cultural, economic and social backgrounds.”

In addition to running a busy private practice, Schulman trains the next generation of plastic surgeons as an assistant professor of plastic surgery at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the same place he received his training.

“Obviously, somebody trained me at some point,” he says. “I think we have a social obligation to pay it forward.”

Schulman says the humanitarian aspect of training future physicians also helps to counteract, to some extent, the image of the cosmetic surgery field.

“[Cosmetic surgery] is a field where everything’s cash, there’s no insurance,” he explains. “And we’re seen as the people at the top, making lots of money, which I guess to some extent is true. But, I still went into medicine for all the basic reasons of trying to help people; to help people feel better about themselves. So there’s a sort of obligation to make sure we’re putting out well-training physicians that are doing good, not harm.”

Rewarding lifestyle and career

Despite his busy schedule, Schulman still makes time to enjoy his family, as well as all the culture and activities that New York City has to offer. He enjoys visiting museums as well as playing squash. And he makes the most of living close to his office.

“Even after a long day in the operating room, I can still be home in 10 minutes and put my children to bed,” he says. “That’s important to me.”

What’s also important is when patients tell him that the procedure he performed has changed their lives. Even after something seemingly minor like a scar revision or cosmetic belly button surgery, teary-eyed patients tell him how grateful they are.

“You just can’t underestimate how much that improves self-esteem and self-confidence, which then translates into improved relationships both personally and professionally,” Schulman says. “And I’ve had so many patients come back and say that because of what I did for them, they had the confidence to be more involved at work and eventually got their promotion. Or they’ve become more engaged, because they were always self-conscious, that they felt insecure when they met somebody.”