Melissa Poh in her Westside home. Photographed by Isaiah Teofilo
What led you to being a plastic/ reconstructive surgeon?
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a graphic artist. Perhaps work in some ad agency. Either that or become a marine biologist. Science was my other love. I also enjoy working with my hands- tinkering and thinking. Fast forward to college, and I wasn’t so sure what pathway I wanted to head down. My father suggested medical school since he knew I liked biology and systems, so I applied. After med school, I did my first residency in general surgery because I wanted to be a transplant surgeon. But after my exposure to plastic surgery, mainly reconstruction surgery, in the later clinical years, I finally found the area where I could merge my right (creative) and my left (analytical) brain. So I completed a second residency in plastic surgery and a fellowship in reconstructive microsurgery and here I am.
You are a partner in your practice. Have you found any/ many gender inequalities in the medical field?
Surgery is typically a male dominated field. So I have essentially grown up with most of my colleagues as men. I do not discount there is sexism or implicit and explicit bias in our field, but fortunately we, both men and women, are becoming much more aware of these situations and most feel charged with a desire or necessity to improve the work setting and dissolve the inequalities. I teach residents and I am trying to train them to be competent surgeons and good doctors, regardless whether they are male or female. There is no difference in the level of capability based on gender.
One of your specialities is reconstructive surgeries- what has been the most rewarding experience from these surgeries?
I would say about 95% of my practice is reconstructive surgery- mostly related to cancer or trauma. I think the most rewarding experience is the little things like patients or family members hugging you and thanking you. Or watching videos of a kid ride his bicycle after you reconstructed his leg injured from an accident. It’s definitely a good feeling to know you’ve done right by some people.
You are currently learning how to perform transgender surgeries. What are you most excited about in this process? What are you most worried about?
The surgeries are quite interesting and technical but the best part is helping a community that has until recently had limited options to just feel normal. The program we are building at my hospital is a large endeavor so I want to make sure it’s done right and very well which can be rather stressful.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
My swim coach used to say “that which does not kill you will make you stronger” right before he pushed us into the cold water for morning practice. In general surgery, our attendings would always tell us “just do the right thing”. When I was growing up, my mother told me“you are never too old to learn”. And often I tell myself “just breathe”.
What is an Ideal Woman to you?
The ideal woman does not exist really, meaning there is not just one. I think each woman or person has a backstory: goals, aspirations, burdens, anxieties, fears and we try somehow to work through life and share experiences with friends and family all with some integrity and perseverance.
Who are you currently crushing on and why?
Katerina Markov Schneider, a brilliant entrepreneur, mother, wife and friend who started her company Ritual last year all while having a newborn. Ritual was named by Business Insider as one of the top startups to launch in 2016 and Schneider recently just spoke at Forbes “Under 30 Summit.” Katerina is the bomb.