Whidbey General CEO pleased with addition of plastic surgeon

A plastic surgeon with a long and distinguished career in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery recently came out of a brief retirement to work at Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville.

Getting Dr. David Slepyan is a major coup for a small, rural hospital district like Whidbey General. He's the first plastic surgeon the hospital has had. He will be on call for the emergency room and will provide a full range of cosmetic operations.

Slepyan retired to Langley after closing his Seattle practice earlier this year. He said he decided to go to work for Whidbey General when it became clear that retirement was not giving him enough to do.

Hospital CEO Scott Rhine said he is thrilled to have Slepyan on board. He said hiring the plastic surgeon may be the first step in an effort to branch out toward medical services that will be more lucrative for the hospital.

Rhine said there's a big demand for quality-of-life services like cosmetic surgery, acupuncture and massage therapy. The one thing all these types of services have in common is that government programs and medical insurance don't usually cover them. So patients will be paying cash.

That's a good thing in the medical business.

"We're trying to find a better balance of the services we are providing so that we aren't so reliant on government funding," Rhine said.

The problem with government funding, whether it's Medicare or Medicaid, is that it doesn't cover the costs of the medical care provided by Whidbey General Hospital. Health maintenance organizations aren't much better, Rhine said. The hospital aired this problem when it held a well-attended public forum on the issue earlier this summer.

By providing services that aren't covered by government programs and frugal insurance plans, the hospital could improve its financial condition.

The other benefit to having a plastic surgeon on staff, Rhine said, is to patients with acute injuries or other conditions requiring reconstructive surgery. For example, the hospital's emergency room will be able to call Slepyan in for a person with a dog bite injury to the face or hand.

In the past, patients needing reconstructive surgery had to travel to Seattle. Now patients can be referred to Slepyan for hand surgery, microsurgery for nerve repair, cleft lip and palate repair, excision of skin cancers, treatment of scar deformities, and other conditions that require the skilled hand of a plastic surgeon.

Slepyan's education and career began in New York City, where he attended Cornell University Medical College and researched flash burns. He pursued general surgery at the University of Washington, then did a plastic surgery residency at the University of Miami in the 1970s.

For two years in the Navy, he was the chief of plastic surgery in Portsmouth, Va. Slepyan studied under Dr. Paul Tessier, an expert in craniofacial and plastic surgery in Paris, and Dr. Harold Kleinert, a hand surgeon in Kentucky. Later, he was the director of the microvascular laboratory in Seattle's Swedish Hospital before starting his own practice.

Slepyan has a good deal of experience with most cosmetic procedures, except Botox and laser skin resurfacing. He does facelifts, liposuction, tummy tucks, scar revision, dermabrasion, eyelid surgery, skin resurfacing, nose and chip reshaping, breast augmentation and implants.

"The whole point of plastic surgery," he said, "is to make people look better without leaving a trace. If people can tell, you've lost the race."

While he's performed facelifts and liposuction on hundreds of wealthy people, Slepyan said his real passion has been to travel to undeveloped countries -- including Vietnam, Mexico and Guatemala -- with other doctors and perform medical procedures on people who would not otherwise have access to physicians. Much of the work he has done is with children who have cleft lips or palates.

To do this work, Slepyan said he needs paying clients to underwrite his charitable work by paying their bills for facelifts and other procedures.

"It's a funny business," he said. "The cosmetic (surgery) pays for the reconstructive."

This is not to say Slepyan is not serious about the cosmetic work he does. He has a state of the art video imaging program that allows him to scan photos of patients and show them, with the click of a mouse, what they will look like after a surgical procedure. Most of the procedures he does, Slepyan said, are meant to change the effect gravity has on a person's body over time.

The results can be subtle. Taking 10 to 15 years off a person's appearance is the goal, Slepyan said. Trying for more than that can defeat the purpose of plastic surgery.

"People need to be realistic," he said. "If people start seeing things (about their appearance) that aren't there, end of discussion."

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