By Bill Hageman
She was born in postwar Poland and grew up under the shadow of the old Soviet Union. But Dr. Maria Siemionow doesn’t talk politics. She talks medicine.
“It always changes. It’s never always the same patients. It’s never always the same result. It’s never always the same research topics,” she explains during a midmorning break near her University of Illinois at Chicago office.
Siemionow (pronounced SEMM-ih-nof) has been a pioneer in her field as a researcher and surgeon. In 2008 she headed the team that performed the first near-total face transplant in the U.S. on Connie Culp, who had been shot in the face.
Last spring, she joined the UIC College of Medicine as a professor of orthopedic surgery, specializing in the fields of nerve regeneration and tissue transplantation.
As a reconstructive surgeon, hand surgeon and microsurgeon, she specializes in the new field of reconstructive transplantation, such as face and hand transplants.
Her work has won her worldwide recognition, including the Polish Order of Merit, and on July 4 she was named one of this year’s 41 “Great Immigrants” by the Carnegie Corp., which each year honors a number of naturalized citizens who have contributed to American society.
Born in Poland in 1950, she came to the U.S. after earning her medical degree at Poznan Medical Academy. She got her doctorate in microsurgery and completed a hand surgery fellowship at the Christine Kleinert Institute for Hand and Micro Surgery in Louisville, Ky., one of the top facilities of its kind in the world.
From there she became an associate professor of surgery at the University of Utah, and in 1995 became the director of plastic surgery research and head of microsurgical training for Cleveland Clinic’s department of plastic surgery, where Culp’s transplant was performed.
Siemionow, who lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood near downtown Chicago with her husband, talked about her life and career during an interview in a coffee shop near the UIC campus. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Growing up in postwar Poland, what was that like?
A: I do not recall any hardship. At 7, kids went to school. We had a decent life. At that time, you don’t think of politics. I was happy playing with my peers. We’d go for vacations in the summer, the Baltic Sea, beautiful sandy beaches.
Q: When did your interest in medicine start?
A: I was always interested in the humanistic, human aspects of things. I was a very good student, history, biology, in high school. I just got interested in the medical profession. To get into medical school at that time was a challenge. In Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, most of the medical students were female. So it was a challenge for a female to get in (because the pool of female applicants was greater than that for males).
Q: Were either of your parents, or anyone in your family, in medicine?
A: No. My father was an economist, and my mother was an economist and financial adviser. My brother, five years younger, is a professor of anesthesiology in Poland. And my son (Dr. Krzysztof Siemionow) is a spine surgeon here at UIC.
Q: The first face transplant surgery, in 2008, the planning for that must have been extensive.
A: I was always a surgeon and a scientist. Starting in the 1990s my research was devoted to transplantation. … I trained many, many years how to transplant.
Q: Are a lot of face transplants being done?
A: It’s still not very common. Probably 30 have been done around the world.
Q: What is the difference between a total and partial face transplant?
A: We performed the first near-total face transplant involving over 80 percent of the entire face, including skin, muscles, bones, eyelids, lips, nose, which at the time (December 2008) was the most extensive face transplant ever performed.
The total face transplant should include all facial structures … full facial skin and muscles are included but some other important structures such as bones are not included in the graft. … Face transplantation is the evolving field, and each case is different, and thus it is difficult to provide one definition.
Q: Your work today goes beyond transplants. You’re also working on hand and nerve surgery, and reducing tissue rejection.
A: When you reconnect (a person’s) own hand, you don’t need any type of medicine except hoping it heals well. When you transplant from a genetically different individual, you need antirejection drugs. Same as for a heart or liver or kidneys. … The challenge is finding new therapies that will be less harmful. … We developed, over the years, new protocols.
We’re fusing cells from donors (with those from) recipients and giving them as a supportive therapy for face, kidney, liver, heart transplants. These new therapies are challenging, but they can revolutionize the field of transplanting.
Q: You also teach.
A: Yes, it’s part of the appointment as a professor of orthopedics. I have my own lab, a teaching lab for my students. I also have my fellows who are rotating in my lab. They have to learn all the new techniques and theories.
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They’re renaissance people. They have to know anatomy, immunology, ethics. We are teaching them every day to be modern Leonardo da Vincis.
Q: Are you a tough teacher?
A: Yes. You can imagine. I’m a tough teacher, but I’m self-demanding, too. I put a lot of time into teaching, so I’m disappointed when they don’t bring something to the teaching table. It goes both ways.
Q: What do you like best? Teaching, research or surgery?
A: I would say 100 percent each.
Q: Do you have any special routine before a surgery?
A: I always like to think about my patients the night before, remind myself of the complexity, the potential downfalls.
Q: Some doctors like to listen to music during surgery; some even let their patients choose it. Where do you stand?
A: I don’t like music during surgery. I love music _ classical, jazz, pop. But it’s distracting. Maybe not to me, but to other personnel.
Q: Do you have any sort of fitness regimen?
A: I like walking. It’s nice now, you can walk around downtown or by the lake. I go to the gym as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Q: What about hobbies or things you do to relax?
A: I do like music, any type that’s not distracting. I love art … contemporary art and painting. I like photography. I pick different themes, topics. Faces. Workers in the street in Paris or Tokyo or Warsaw.
Q: Any pets?
A: No. We travel too much. We used to have dogs in Poland. And my son, when he was young, had pets _ geckos, salamander, lizards, an Argentine frog, turtles. He was always interested in reptiles. We gave the last lizard to a friend’s daughter when he went to college.
Q: Have you found a good Polish restaurant in Chicago?
A: There’s a Polish deli, Kasia’s Deli (at 2101 W. Chicago Ave.). Sometimes on the weekend, we’ll get the Polish specialties. Paczkis, sweets, Polish chocolates. They have all the things I remember from my childhood.