Plastic surgeon Christine Petti, MD, was working on a rotation with a renowned surgical oncologist during her general surgery residency when she just happened to witness a procedure that would determine the direction of her career. It was serendipity.
It was the 1980s and the surgical oncologist was at the cutting edge of breast cancer surgery. He performed a mastectomy, then a plastic surgery team entered the operating room to perform an immediate breast reconstruction.
The surgical oncologist suggested Dr. Petti stay in the room and observe the breast reconstruction.
“No matter how many times I see a mastectomy, it is still very traumatic to me. Observing the plastic surgery team immediately create the anatomical structure that was amputated so that the woman did not have to wake up with a flat and empty chest, the stigmata of breast cancer and the loss of femininity, was simply miraculous. I thought, wow, this is a really cool field. Plastic surgery is a field where you can create and enhance anatomy, rather than remove and extract it,” Dr. Petti said.
Dr. Petti was sold on pursuing plastic surgery and spent the first part of her career focused on reconstruction.
“I think plastic surgery is beautiful because we learn to balance form and function – meaning that not only do we have to be skilled at creating something functional, we have to meet the challenge of making what we create look as imperceptibly normal and natural as is technically and aesthetically possible,” Dr. Petti explained.
Dr. Petti trained at a time when flaps, digital replantation and microsurgery were at their infancy. Plastic surgeons were expected to acquire a solid foundation in plastic surgery and other surgical specialties by first spending five years in general surgery residency, which she did from 1981 to 1986.
This intense surgical and reconstructive experience gave Dr. Petti a strong foundation for developing a very successful aesthetic practice. In addition to her focus on breast reconstruction, Dr. Petti gained extensive experience in facial reconstruction of defects resulting from excision of skin cancer and Moh’s micrographic dermatological surgery.
“When you deal with facial skin cancer, which is common here in Southern California, it is not aesthetically acceptable to simply use a skin graft to close a large facial defect. This would result in a permanent, conspicuous facial deformity. You must design and create a flap that matches the area of the facial defect so that the reconstruction is literally inconspicuous. You must consider a multitude of factors including skin color, texture and contour so that the end result of the reconstruction is harmonious and imperceptible,” she emphasized.
“Having this in-depth experience in facial and breast reconstruction early in my practice was outstanding, as I became immediately highly skilled in the ability to perform complex reconstructions that maintained a normal function and a naturally-pleasing aesthetic.”
A turning point
Like many women in medicine, Dr. Petti spent years juggling career and family.
In the later 1980s, she launched and built a solo plastic surgery practice in Torrance and the South Bay of Los Angeles, Calif., while covering emergency rooms at multiple hospitals.
Dr. Petti and her husband, John Stoneburner, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon, had their children – two girls – in 1992 and 1994. The last was born 2-months shy of Dr. Petti’s 40th birthday.
She continued to work nonstop with her practice, covering emergency rooms, doing urgent consultations and non-elective plastic surgery, when before she knew it her daughters were in middle school. That was when Dr. Petti’s nanny looked at the busy plastic surgeon and said, “Dr. Petti, you need to be home more with your children.”
Dr. Petti says the nanny loved her children and loved her. The nanny’s wisdom came from a good place – that children in middle school are growing up and can get into trouble. It is a critical time when they need their parents to physically be there for them.
Dr. Petti realized that as much as she enjoyed reconstruction, she’d have more control of her time with a dedicated, elective aesthetic practice. So, she hired a consultant and redirected her reconstructive practice to a cosmetic practice.
“I would still love to treat women with breast cancer to this day. That was my passion and what inspired me to enter the specialty of plastic surgery,” she stated. “But due to my need to have more control of my time and move toward scheduling elective rather than urgent surgeries, I concentrated on cosmetic surgery to allow me the time on weeknights and weekends to monitor homework, athletics, dance and college prep for my children. I had to combine my passion for surgical excellence and outstanding patient care with my goal to raise two beautiful, intelligent daughters who were loved, supported, motivated and balanced. I did not want to be a parent that had daughters who would perhaps resort to drugs or other troublesome activities because they were not getting the love and guidance from home.”
It was a seamless transition, she recalled.
“I have a natural eye and surgical talent for aesthetics. Since the very beginning of my surgical career in reconstructive plastic surgery, I achieved good outcomes because I had an artistic sense as I moved through an operation to the final result. It also helped that I grew up in a “beauty shop” since my mother was a hair stylist/cosmetologist,” Dr. Petti shared.
Dr. Petti says her patients have helped to drive beneficial change in her practice. In the early 1990s one of her male patients, who was an entrepreneur, recommended that Dr. Petti become a “one-stop-shop” for aesthetics. He said, with her talent and being a woman, there was no reason for patients to go anywhere else.
Dr. Petti pursued this concept and had the first certified, licensed, office-based ambulatory plastic surgery center in 1993.
“I also created an office-based medical day spa in 1998, before anybody else in our community, way before medspas were so prolific and popular,” she noted.
She has published peer-reviewed papers on Cynosure and Hologic laser-based procedures, including studies on the Smartlipo Triplex, Cellulaze and SculpSure technologies. She has an extensive array of devices in her practice and jokingly refers to the pricey, yet effective technologies as her “Bentley,” “Rolls Royce,” “Tesla”, “Porsche” and more.
“I basically put the revenue generated by the practice back into the practice. I enjoy having enhancing technologies that are minimally or non-invasive with little downtime for my patients,” Dr. Petti stated.
At age 65, when many of Dr. Petti’s colleagues are contemplating retirement, Dr. Petti isn’t slowing down or planning to anytime soon.
“I feel so invigorated – like I haven’t missed a beat,” she declared.
As a woman, Dr. Petti says she has never felt at a disadvantage because of her gender.
“People never treated me differently,” she reiterated. “I was treated like one of the guys and was expected to get out there and just do it. I had to be just as strong.”
One of her favorite quotes is a version of “If you build it, they will come,” made famous in the movie, Field of Dreams. “’Build it and they will come’ is inspirational, as we live in such a dynamic world, we have to be willing to constantly learn, adapt and develop new skills to remain at the top of the field of plastic surgery,” she says.
“Don’t expect people to grant you favors or make things easy because you are a female,” she stated.
Words of wisdom
Dr. Petti’s advice to aesthetic physicians who have recently started a practice is to anticipate and prepare for practice ups and downs.
“Nowadays there is so much competition. Additionally, there are times when the economy is struggling so you have to constantly rebuild. You are going to have good times, but you will also have dips down to the point where you say I don’t know if I can handle all this pressure. You have to be able to say ‘I can build it back up over time.’ Be patient and believe in your surgical and personal skills.”
Four random facts about Dr. Petti
Q: Besides if you build it, they will come, do you have any other favorite quotes?
A: ’With great power comes great responsibility,’ made popular in Spider-Man comic books. Everyone wants the power, but you don’t want to do procedures that you are not adequately trained for because you can scar and deform people. There is a lot of responsibility. Surgery is very intense because of the power you have.
Q: What is your favorite piece of advice?
A: My father would tell me, ‘Be yourself. Always be true to self. Never be ashamed of who you are. Embrace it.’ He would also repeatedly remind me when I was studying or working, that I was not at school or university or on a job to win a popularity contest. I was there to do the job, earn great grades and excel academically.
Q: If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?
A: The Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I admire Modigliani’s unique cubist-style art with the long neck and mystical eyes. And Mozart shook up the world during his time. Both were icons, yet “bad-boy” types, who worked hard, played hard and died young, all which make them both curiously interesting me.
Q: What is the greatest medical invention of all time?
A: Liposuction ranks high for being amazing. What I love about liposuction is the ability to surgically sculpt problem areas of the body – belly fat, love handles, bat wing arms, knobby knees, thunder thighs, double chins – that are not amenable to aesthetically-pleasing contours, even by adhering to the most disciplined diet and exercise. The ability to safely and confidently surgically sculpt the jawline, neck and body in hours, rather than suffer from a lifetime of frustrated body shame is truly life-changing for the patient and ecstatically rewarding for me. But what is most exciting is that the fat removed is an exceptionally unique and beneficial tissue that is used to harvest stem cells to regenerate and rejuvenate all types of human tissue. This is truly miraculous! The possibilities are endless and ad infinitum!