Nearly three decades ago, pediatric plastic surgeon John Reinisch ’62 developed a revolutionary way to repair the congenital disorder known as microtia, a condition where a child is missing one or both ears. The traditional approach at the time was to fashion a new ear from a piece of the child’s rib cartilage, a procedure that required several painful surgeries and could be done only on children older than 10, to avoid deforming their chest. John’s technique used a synthetic material—porous polyethylene—and could be done in a single outpatient surgery on children as young as three, sparing them a childhood of shame and self-consciousness.
The operation, like the others John performs to repair cleft lips and remove disfiguring birthmarks, is life changing (he and his colleagues also repair the ear canal, if needed, allowing patients to hear unaided for the first time). Over the years, hundreds of children from around the world have been treated by John at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Los Angeles, where he is director of craniofacial and pediatric Plastic Surgery. Among those are more than two dozen children from nine countries who could not afford the $40,000 operation, but were treated nonetheless, through the support of the Small Wonders Foundation, a nonprofit started in 2005 by some of John’s former patients.
For these children, John provides his services for free.
“It’s very hard to see parents and children who can’t get care,” John explained to a local television reporter. “And I don’t find it work. I enjoy doing it.”
Which explains, perhaps, his remarkable energy. “My wife will tell you, I work all the time,” John said recently, as he drove in Los Angeles with his wife, Nancy. “And I’m 73. I operate every day, and I like it. On Wednesday, I’m going to Australia to see patients. We give talks to parents on Saturday, and see patients on Sunday, and come home. On the following Friday night, I’m going to Vietnam to see patients, lecture, and operate as well.”
“What you might assess from what John is saying,” added Nancy, “is that he is still operating in high gear. The idea that work can take a toll? I don’t think that paradigm works for John. I think it really energizes him.”
“I love teaching,” John continued. “We have residents and lots of visitors from other countries. It really makes life rich. And Nan is a social worker on the team and connects with a lot of these families.”
John has contributed more than 100 articles and book chapters to his field’s medical literature, and received numerous awards and honors from professional organizations. But the most heartfelt praise comes from the patients he has helped over the years. “Thanks to Small Wonders Foundation, to Dr. Reinisch…and to each one of you who contributed to make my dream come true,” wrote Diego, a patient and gymnast from Mexico who had both ears reconstructed. “I am able to walk around without having people staring at me. I feel the most confident ever. I can go to parties and competitions feeling proud of my ears. I enjoy feeling sounds, hearing noises—the water, the wind, everything that you all consider ‘normal.’”
“Dr. John Reinisch truly changes the lives of children and their families,” says Small Wonders Board President Thelma Waxman. “It is not an overstatement to say he is a miracle worker.”
What inspires John, in part, is that he can relate to being different as a child. “My father died when I was five,” he explains. “My mother, who was from Europe and didn’t speak English very well, had a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a one-year-old. We never felt like a regular American family. I think we always felt a little different, maybe not because of a deformity but because of our circumstances, and I think that I had some desire to make people whole in that sense.”
John’s father and mother were both doctors, and to give young John “some male influence” after his father died, his mother sent him to Williston. “I think the headmaster, Phil Stevens, liked my mother and was fairly compassionate in allowing me to get into the school. She was a single parent. She always had wonderful things to say about him. And I don’t think I was a great student. I had to go to summer school to take some remedial classes before I started.”
From Williston, John went on to earn degrees at Dartmouth University and Harvard Medical School. After his residency, in 1983, he was hired by the University of Southern California to start the Division of Pediatric Plastic Surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He is still a professor of surgery there, and his department is one of the busiest of its kind in the world.
Name: John Reinisch, M.D. ’62
Home: Los Angeles, California
Work: Surgeon for the Small Wonders Foundation and Director of Craniofacial and Pediatric Plastic Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group