Doctor Carlos Wolf: When reconstructing a face means reconstructing a life
"I love what I do because I change lives for the better”
“The cult of youth is creating a very superficial society”
He is one of the most prestigious plastic surgeons in the United States, specialized in head, face and neck reconstruction. His patients include victims of brutal accidents, cancer victims and victims of domestic violence. His hands provide hope, a cure, a way to erase pain and worries from the life of his patients.
He chose this specialty with true devotion when it was barely known. Today, thirty years later, doctor Wolf is a reference, one of the greatest in this discipline.
If I had to choose three words to define him, they would be commitment, compassion and balance. Three values that have brought him professional recognition and personal satisfaction. Three values that have made him a medical virtuoso and an fascinating human being.
Tireless and hardworking at 59, he still runs his clinic in Miami with frantic activity. He cherishes life and tries not to waste a single moment. For him, both work and leisure are necessary in order to achieve happiness.
While listening to him talk about the heartfelt letters of gratitude he has received from patients over the years, I got the impression of being with a particularly charismatic and compassionate man. It is hard not to be impressed at how deeply emotional some of these letters are. Satisfied and grateful he admits:
“Looking back at thirty years of profession, I know I’ve done things right”
Q: Carlos, who are you?
A: I am an honest man, a simple person who likes good people and who likes things to be crystal clear. I am optimistic, hard-working, cheerful and I am very proud of my family. I am in love with life and I feel grateful for having been able to enjoy it to the fullest. These are values I learnt from my mother.
I believe in hard work and in determination to get to where you want to go. I love sense of humor and I enjoy trying to make people happier.
Q: You are one of the best and most renowned facial plastic surgeons in the United States. You are also one of the most beloved. Why is that?
A: Maybe because I am just a good person. Regardless of techniques I have developed throughout my life, which reduce the duration of my interventions to just one quarter compared to those of my colleagues, I think people appreciate me because I am fundamentally a good human being. I take care of myself mentally and I am careful about how I treat others. I cannot afford not being in perfect shape inside my head, because that would have a negative impact on my work and ultimately it would be the patient who is affected. This, I cannot afford.
Q: Why did you choose this specialization?
A: When I started, thirty years ago, this specialization almost didn’t exist; but I was always interested in this part of the anatomy. And because you cannot be good at everything, you have to specialize and I chose head, neck and face surgery.
Q: What difference is there between plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery?
A: Plastic surgery is reconstructive. It involves reconstructing tissue that is either missing or has been damaged due to cancer, accidents, trauma or from birth. It is a surgery that adds something that is missing and which is necessary.
Cosmetic surgery simply modifies the physical appearance of a patient.
Q: What kind of relationship do you have with your patients?
A: Very close. It’s a relationship of mutual trust. I try to learn as much as I can about their emotional state, about their lives and I try to find out the real reasons they come to me, because for a good result, mutual trust and being clear is key. I always try to establish an intimate and personal complicity between doctor and patient.
Apart from this, every one of my patients, wherever he or she lives, has my personal phone number, something that my colleagues find surprising. That’s another thing that sets me apart from the rest.
My patients should never feel alone or abandoned.
Q: Does changing a face change a personality?
A: I’d say that it actually brings out the personality. I have patients who fifteen or twenty years after the surgery tell me that my operation changed their lives completely, that it opened up a world of opportunities and made life much easier for them. They feel more comfortable and more confident, they feel empowered to do things they had no courage to do before. And this is not only so with plastic surgery. Cosmetic surgery can also solve real personal dramas. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I love what I do because I change lives for the better and because I help people become happier. Looking back at 30 years of profession I can see that I did some good and I did it right.
Q: Victims of domestic violence are among your many patients. How do you feel when you see someone disfigured by something like this?
A: In my profession I have seen the best and worst sides of human nature. This is a good example of that.
As a man, I feel what any good person can feel at such atrocities.
As a surgeon, I prepare to reconstruct more than just a face. Recovering a face is giving patients their physical identity back. You make it possible for them to walk proud again, without feeling rejected, without feeling embarrassed or humiliated. Sometimes “reconstructing a face is reconstructing a life.”
Q: What would you never do? Have you ever rejected a request from a patient?
A: I never do anything that I think is not right for them or that will not look good. What the patient wants is always important for me, but I avoid making drastic changes because I worry about the mental preparedness to accept them later on. Above any economic interest I always think about what’s best for my patients.
Q: How many patients have not gone to a psychiatrist or a psychologist because of you?
A: I don’t know how many patients have decided not to go to a psychologist, but I do know that I’ve sent quite a few. I spend a considerable part of my time speaking to my patients, so after so many years I have become a sort of psychologist myself.
Sometimes the patient doesn’t even know what he or she wants. Some come to me while going through a difficult moment in their lives, like the loss of a loved one, for example, after losing their jobs or after a divorce. So, when I see that something is not right I recommend that they visit a psychologist first and only after they do this they can decide whether they need my expertise or not.
Q: Do you feel important?
A: I feel useful. That’s what’s important to me.
Q: What has your profession given you from a human point of view?
A: It has made me a good psychologist, as I have just mentioned. I have learnt to listen, to watch, to accept the different ways of understanding the world. All I know about the human condition I’ve learnt from my patients. My clinic has seen everything. I have seen people who are sensitive, kind, selfish, victims, arrogant. People who are incredibly generous, gracious and not so gracious, or not gracious at all.
I have also learnt that it is important to surround yourself with good people, both at work and in life. Today I say this to my kids, so they learn that as soon as possible. You cannot get very far unless you surround yourself with people who are good in every sense.
Most of all, I have discovered that helping others is the most rewarding thing in life.
Q: In Spain many professionals have problems keeping their jobs after turning 50. Passage of time, far from being useful is seen as a threat. They don’t feel recognized. Do you have patients who want to look younger so as to be able continue working?
A: Of course I do. Especially in the movie industry, the media and show business in general. Some are well-known and charismatic. So much in fact that they simply cannot afford to look tired or old. It pleases me if I can help them to keep their jobs. Because it is a fact of life that people who are better-looking and younger find it easier to get better jobs.
Q: In our societies, we seem obssessed with looking young. Is there something wrong with our values?
A: Looking healthy and young contributes to us feeling younger and stronger inside, to celebrate what we have enjoyed and look forward to what’s ahead. That is great and important. And that’s why I love my job, of course.But one thing is to try to look healthy, so we can look and feel better, and quite another is to try to eliminate through surgery our culture and what’s positive about the passage of time, the value of the elderly, their experience as a reference, their wisdom. We are definitely creating a very superficial society. That’s the wrong way to go.
I have patients who are 70 or even 80, and they own their lives and make their own decisions, feel absolutely great, want to enjoy everything, have an excellent sense of humor. They prove that being young does not mean being more valuable. I love and admire their attitude and courage.
Q: You have to stay fit to be able to endure such intense activity. Many hours at the clinic and inside the operating room. How do you stay in shape at 59?
A: I do take care of myself, both for the sake of my patients and for my own. If you want a long professional career you have to take care of yourself. I must be in top physical and mental condition, because I operate on faces and I have to be perfect. Any mistake could be disastrous, for the patient especially. I don’t care much about the financial aspect, I care about my patients. So I stay in shape.
Three or four times per week I practice sports, even if I’ve had an exhausting day. On weekends even more. I am careful about what I eat. I travel two or three times per year so my mind can rest. I surround myself with good people, who are optimistic. This is incredibly important. I have no bad people around me.
Q: What have you gained with age?
A: Well, first of all, confidence and trust. Today there are no surprises for me in what I do. When you are in this profession you are never sure whether your methods will work.
More importantly, however, I have learnt that helping others is always more important than money.
Q: What do you feel most proud of?
A: I am a family person and I feel very proud of my family. I feel proud of my kids and to have been married for more than 30 years, which is not very frequent in my business.
And professionally, I feel proud of having gone beyond anything I could have imagined and that my patients seek my experience and appreciate how I treat them, despite there being much younger surgeons out there. That makes me feel proud and grateful. This happens even with the third generation of my first patients.
Q: Any personal recipe for staying and feeling young?
A: My trick is to know how to play the hand, it’s not so much about the cards you are dealt. Don’t find excuses for doing nothing. Fight for whatever it is that you are passionate about, and try to be the best at it. And after you achieve something, enjoy the pleasure of having achieved it. Enjoy life. If not, it’s not even worth the effort.
Q:Any new challenges in mind?
A: There is one constant challenge and that is to live life to the fullest so I don’t miss out on anything.
For the time being I will continue working at my clinic because I still love my job and I am still physically and mentally strong. But maybe I should slow down a bit so I can travel more.
But because I am a very curious person I have already some projects on my mind which I am very excited about. They are not related to my profession but I am enthusiastic about them. Some of them actually started years ago and will soon see the light of day. Others I am still thinking about. I like writing, for example, and I do have many publications in different specialized media, but I love humor and I would like to write about humorous anecdotes and experiences I’ve lived.
Q: And your most intimate dream yet to be fulfilled?
A:I am very happy at this point in my life. I am happy about what I have achieved. But I would love to have grandchildren!But that’s not really up to me, is it?
Cocktail Mint Julep
- 1 ounces Mint Simple Syrup
- 2 ounces bourbon
- Fresh mint sprig, for garnish
- Fill glass to the top with finely crushed ice
- Pour in mint simple syrup, and bourbon
- Stir well and garnish with mint