Special Reports

Whatcom County’s plastic surgeons find rewards in healing trauma, restoring function

Bellingham plastic surgeons James Blackburn and Timothy Whitney agree that Hollywood celebrities contribute to an inaccurate public image of their profession. Both physicians practice at Plastic Surgery Bellingham, where the reality of their work is much different than what makes headlines in supermarket tabloids.

“Plastic surgery has a lot more to do with reconstruction than with filling wrinkles and making breasts bigger,” Blackburn says. “Restoring people to where they can function as they did before is by far the best part of our jobs.”

Whitney says he was attracted to plastic surgery for precisely that reason, and he continues to be rewarded years later.

“The daily problem-solving approach, based on science and anatomy, remains the appeal and the reward,” he says.

After medical school, both physicians completed residencies in general and plastic and reconstructive surgery. Blackburn followed up with specialized training in hand and microsurgery, while Whitney specialized in microsurgical replantation and transplantation. Both are certified with the American Board of Plastic Surgery.

There’s no inside secret about how plastic surgeons learn and perfect their microsurgery skills.

“See one, do one, teach one,” Whitney explains. “It starts with helping an experienced surgeon, followed by performing the procedure yourself under supervision and coaching.”

The last step is to teach the procedure to medical students.

“The best way to learn a skill is to teach someone else how to do it,” Blackburn adds.

The practice at Plastic Surgery Bellingham is approximately 40 percent hand surgery and 40 percent breast surgery, half of which is reconstructive following breast cancer surgery and half of which is cosmetic. The remaining 20 percent are cosmetic procedures — abdominoplasty, liposuction, face and eyelifts, and filler injections.

“We basically move tissue around the body as needed, to heal trauma, to reconstruct, or for cosmetic purposes,” Whitney explains.

Recent innovations in plastic surgery have both physicians excited about the future. Since they began in the field 20 years ago, there has been greater understanding of how wounds heal and a broader range of technologies available to them.

“We are starting to have the ability to do things that we only dreamed about when we were in training,” Whitney says.

One example is ACell. Applied to a wound, ACell stimulates tissue to rebuild itself, which normally doesn’t happen after a patient is older than 5 or 6.

A recent success story involved a local construction worker who chopped off the top third of his finger. His options were to reconnect the finger, which would require a full year’s absence from manual labor; close the wound and live with a shortened finger; or try to regrow it using ACell, which required about eight weeks away from work.

“The patient opted to try the stem cell stimulant and the results were pretty amazing,” Whitney says. “It took about eight weeks to regrow the finger, and it looked pretty much normal.”

For Blackburn and Whitney, that kind of result is the best part of their work.

“The ability to put people back together and restore them to function is extremely rewarding,” Blackburn says.

Reconstructing faces

Jason Lichtenberger operates out of both Bellingham Ear Nose and Throat and Hecht Aesthetic Center. After medical school, he completed a residency in ear, nose and throat, and facial plastic surgery. As a facial plastic surgeon, “all of my procedures are performed above the collarbone,” he explains.

Lichtenberger says facial plastic surgery was a natural fit with his detail-oriented personality.

“As a kid I would build elaborate Lego structures, and during my training in head and neck surgery, the complex plastic surgical repairs always intrigued and challenged me,” he says.

Lichtenberger’s most common surgical procedures are lifting eyelids, brows and faces; nasal or sinus surgeries; and skin cancer facial reconstruction. His most popular office procedures are Botox and filler injections and facial laser resurfacing.

“My practice is approximately 50 percent cosmetic and 50 percent reconstructive, which was always my goal,” he says.

Lichtenberger says the growth in non-surgical facial treatments is a major development in his field.

“Botox and facial fillers, especially the new formulations, allow aging changes to be slowed and even reversed, without even having to take time off work,” he says.

A recent transplant to the Northwest, Lichtenberger was surprised by the high incidence of skin cancer locally. Reconstruction of the face following skin cancer is his most common non-cosmetic procedure, and one he says is the most rewarding.

“It’s very satisfying to help people recover to look and feel their best,” he says.