Restoring their looks

Restoring their looks

A plastic surgeon has set out to give back badly disfigured patients their self-respect - and a chance for a new life


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Photo: Grace Yip
Most people associate plastic surgery with glamour. They see it as trickery designed to hide one's flaws while enhancing one's looks. But that's hardly the whole story: an important part of corrective procedures is reconstructive surgery.

Professor Andrew Burd knows both sides well. He is head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and works at the Prince of Wales Hospital. Over the past 30 years, he has performed both cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries - several hundred of them each year.

Burd approaches his job with a sort of "Robin Hood" mentality: he performs cosmetic surgery on well-off patients so as to raise money for research and treatment of the less-privileged members of society.

Through reconstructive surgery, he can help change people's lives. He works to restore the features and physical appearances of people deformed and disfigured by trauma, tumours or congenital diseases.

That's no easy task. Burd's routine includes replacing pigmented skin with artificial skin in operations for patients with skin cancer, vascular malformations and chronic wounds and scars. He is also involved in training the future generation of plastic surgeons in Hong Kong.

"To take a young child who is trapped in a 'prison' of scar tissue and, through a variety of surgical procedures and techniques, give them freedom is immensely satisfying, both professionally and personally," the British doctor says.

Burd concedes that he once wanted to be a writer and explorer before he took up medicine as a profession.

Despite his immense experience, the doctor treats each new case as a new challenge. He relishes memories of patients who bravely fought against the pain and ravages of terminal disease.

Sharing the doctor's office at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin is a tankful of newts. The colony of resident amphibians was originally part of the professor's research on the potential of stem-cells in the re-growth of damaged skin and tissue in burn victims. These newts are among the rare species that can re-grow lost limbs and tissue. During his research the newts grew on him so he kept them.

Now in his mid-50s, Burd admits he may not have been the best role model in his early years. At one point, he was even "identified as a potential trouble maker". He was once a bit of a rebel, he says with a laugh. He spent more time socialising than studying.

One of his recent side projects included shooting a documentary on a specific type of skin disease called Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa.

The nine-minute educational film allows the audience to learn about the horrific disease and its effects on his patients. Burd made it to raise funds for research, treatment and the care of one of his child patients called Shun Shun.

"I hope to raise awareness of this rare skin disease and present the challenges these patients [and their families] are facing to combat it," he says.

The film was even sent to the Cannes International Film Festival but was not shortlisted. Undeterred, Burd plans to send it to all the other film festivals and also release it to the local media.

"Childhood should be a time of fun, fantasy and freedom. [Instead] Shun Shun is locked in a prison of his disease," Burd says. "We want to set him free, get him out of the hospital so he can dream his own dreams one day."



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