by Antonio Paulo Pitanguy, Plastic Surgery Resident
I have always been very close to my grandfather. I remember on the weekends when we went to the island (figure 1), I often preferred talking to him than playing with my cousin. He had the ability and encouraged me to keep an open mind and curiosity for different subjects. Culture was part of his life and something very natural to him; simplicity was one of his main qualities. We had a very peculiar life style, but everything seemed to be normal. Looking back now, I see how fortunate I was to enjoy his company in different places. I loved to have lunch with him at his clinic. He had a private apartment at the top floor with aquarium and birds and was dressed with the scrubs that he was wearing in the OR. There was an auditorium that showed life surgeries where fellows and residents were watching, and it was fascinating to me.
During my summer vacations in school, we used to go to Switzerland to ski. I have great memories with him; sometimes he used to take me to the cinema and then to have pizza. He had the ability to make everyone feel special, playing with snow and skiing with the family.
When I began medical school, he was happy, but he gave me the sense of responsibility. He told me that first of all I had to become a doctor and fully live each step. “Don’t put the carriage in front of the horses,” he used to tell me. Because in his opinion, the world was full of specialists, but without a real interest in the human being. He encouraged me to study, and when he came to have dinner with us and I had a test, he used to ask me questions about the subject. I remember one day I skipped class and went to the clinic to observe an operation. When he saw me, he asked me: “What you are doing here? It’s not the time to observe plastic surgery yet, you should be studying.” (figure 2)
I started doing night shifts at the main public hospital emergency in Rio when I was in my fourth year at medical school. I didn’t want people to know that I was his grandson because his name is very famous in Brazil. I remember when a patient came in with a cut on her face to suture, and she told me without knowing who I was: “Please do your best. I want to look as if Pitanguy had done it.” The experience at the public hospital was deeply important to me and gave me the sense of reality with all the victims of urban violence coming in. We didn’t sleep, but it was all very exciting, and I loved to tell him the stories. It was the subject that he liked the most: telling me his experience and adventures at the begging of his career when he worked at the emergency getting calls from the favelas.
When I graduated, I decided that I should do my general surgery training at a public hospital in the suburbs of Rio, with an open emergency and a lot of trauma. He encouraged me to do so, and it was the most important experience of my life. The surgeons working there are true heroes, giving the best they can in an almost war zone scenario, getting gunshot victims almost every day with poor conditions of material and infrastructure. I’ve learned a lot there and spent two Christmas Eve’s working at the emergency instead of enjoying a meal with my family in Europe. He was proud but never really demonstrated this. He was always pushing me to stay humble and making me aware of the hierarchy and the long way I had ahead of me.
He created a plastic surgery school in the beginning of the 60’s. He told me that if I wanted to enter his training, I had to study hard and do a good test because it was a meritocratic institution and not a family business. He was happy to accept me with merit (figure 3). I knew he wouldn’t live forever, so in the past 3 years I really made an effort to spend the most possible time with him. I had the privilege to go to different plastic surgery meetings with him in many places. In Brazil, everybody asked to take pictures with him and, because of his age, sometimes I was worried. Once I asked if he wasn’t tired to do so many photos? He said he wasn’t a rock star, he was a doctor and those where his colleges, so he was very honored with the recognition of his work.
I had the chance to go to the USA and observe one of the world’s leading plastic surgeons, and when I came back, talking to him, I had the clear perception that he really didn’t know how he influenced people and how he was a role model to so many young surgeons. Curiosity was what kept him going; he was curious about almost everything, and he liked to quote a Brazilian writer called Guimarães Rosa who said, “Master is not who always teach, but the one that always learns.” In that sense, he asked about social media, iPhone apps, etc. In the last months, I really enjoyed taking movies to watch with him after dinner, but I always had some options, because frequently he said: No this is too boring, or too presumptuous, and I had to change it. His house in Rio was close to the forest, so often at Sunday lunches we had a visit from monkeys at the garden, and he asked me to feed them. He said: “Give to the banana to the small one. This one is too fat eating everything.” He was a nature lover way before ecology became a trend. And during more than 30 years he kept his island linked with the Brazilian Institute of Environment with many species of animals.
I turned 30 years old one week before he passed away. He was doing hemodialysis. The day after, I took a birthday cake and champagne to his place. We made a toast, he wished me success, and felt that I was sad because of his fragility. He quoted a passage of the Bible, when the king Davi was dying and asked to call his son that was still very young, and said to me him in Latin “Confortare pesto vir,” which means “Take courage, be a man.” (figure 4). I will always keep the memory of his resilience toward the end of his life, insisting in accepting to carry the Olympic torch one day before he passed away and never complaining about anything. He kept his sense of humor until the end and lived a full and productive life. Work occupied most of his time, but I know he didn’t regret it; he was passionate for the specialty he chose and help to spread in Brazil.