Skin Deep

Don't like your face? Your breasts? Your tummy? Get yourself new ones. Plastic surgeon Ernest DiGeronimo makes the kindest cuts.

For DiGeronimo such responses from patients are gratifying. "When I see someone smile, it gives me a sense of fulfillment," he says. But his practice also doesn't hurt his handsome lifestyle. Still, he insists, "I'm not into it for the money." Indeed, he argues, "It's not more lucrative than any other surgical practice."

At an earlier point in his career, however, the doctor saved lives, not just faces and egos. (Admittedly, a small percentage of his practice involves more than a patient's vanity -- for example, removing skin cancer growths.) Reared in a Boston suburb as the son of the town's leading dentist, DiGeronimo always knew he wanted to go into a medical field where he could work with his hands. "I could always fix things," he says, and even today he spends his spare time carefully restoring antiques. He was accepted into dental school but at the last minute decided to apply to medical school. He says because it was too late in the year to get into an American school, he went to Mexico's Universidad Aut centsnoma de Guadalajara to learn medicine.

It was as a resident at a few different New Jersey medical schools that he discovered his flair for surgery, and today, when he's asked about what cases he's proudest of, the one he mentions first happened more than twenty years ago, back when he was a resident. A man had been stabbed in the heart and actually was clinically dead when DiGeronimo and a fellow resident opened up his chest A even before they entered the operating room. DiGeronimo desperately began massaging the man's heart and restored the flow of blood. Then they went into the operating room, where he sewed up the wounded heart.

"What we do now is not as heroic," he admits, "but I satisfy somebody and fulfill a need."

Although he was skilled and fast, he says, general surgery was too emotionally draining for him. When a fellow resident told him about the advantages of plastic surgery, he was intrigued. "It was great working on healthy people," he learned. "You could do creative things, and you could operate when you want." By 1978 he was enrolled in the University of Miami's respected plastic surgery program under the tutelage of Dr. D. Ralph Millard, Jr. DiGeronimo was a star in the program, according to Dr. Tim Alexander, a graduate fellow at the time who now has a local practice; after completing the UM program, DiGeronimo started his own practice in 1980.

Although his specialty isn't as respected as other surgical fields, DiGeronimo never wavers in his belief in the importance of plastic surgery to his patients. "The truth is nobody really needs cosmetic surgery," he admits at the end of another busy workday, as he removes stitches from a patient who has had eyelid surgery. "It's something you have to really want, like a new blouse." The patient concurs. She's so grateful she's brought DiGeronimo a teddy bear as a gift, a tribute to his skills.

He's reminded, too, of his craftsmanship in other ways. A few of the people he's operated on work in the office every day, adding an aura of Stepford Wives-style unreality to the place. When an imposingly beautiful DiGeronimo staffer pokes her head inside the room where the doctor is taking a lunch break, he notes with pride after she's gone, "She's been worked on from head to toe." He ticks off the procedures: liposuction, breast augmentation, tummy tuck, nose job. In the world of artificial beauty, practice makes perfect.

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