Alumni Profiles

No Job Too Small
A surgeon makes a difference in the lives of children

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David Zaitz

In the era of "Nip/Tuck" and "Dr. 90210," no one would blame plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Jaffurs '89 if he capitalized on Americans' obsession with surgical enhancement. But for Jaffurs, surgery isn't about improving the looks of adults, it's about improving the lives of kids.

The only specialist in cranio-facial plastic surgery at UC Irvine, Jaffurs primarily repairs cleft lips and cleft palates. Every year an estimated 6,800 children are born in the United States with these congenital defects. The complex surgery to correct them requires specific training and is not a one-time procedure; rhinoplasty and jaw surgery are often required as the patient grows. Jaffurs and his "cleft team"—including a geneticist, a social worker, a dentist and a speech pathologist—oversee patients through age 21. "This is something that's going to affect a kid for the rest of his life," he says. "You need to have a support system in place." That's why when he takes overseas mission trips, he only performs surgery when he's confident the local medical personnel can provide adequate follow-up care.

To hear Jaffurs tell it, becoming a surgeon was a series of flukes. Dropping out of high school at 16 to play guitar, he eventually earned a GED diploma in the Air Force. In 1982, he heard the band was getting back together. But at the reunion in Portsmouth, N.H., he realized his minimum-wage job made him one of the lucky ones—he could actually afford to eat—and he decided it was time for a new career. He found himself at UNH at age 24, where thanks to a work-study job with zoology professor Charles Walker, Jaffurs fell in love with research. His subsequent doctorate in molecular genetics and medical degree were more about credibility to earn NIH research grants than a desire to become a doctor. But all that changed the first time he stepped into an operating room. "I was home," he says. After shadowing a surgeon who repaired cleft lips, he says, "I found out I really liked taking care of kids."

That hasn't changed, and he likes it that way. "Kids are a good gauge for what you've done. When they're not feeling good, they're not feeling good, and when they're feeling better, they just want to go play. And they heal really well." In addition to cleft-lip and palate surgery, Jaffurs also corrects other facial and skull issues, sometimes congenital, sometimes the result of trauma. "If it's on a kid and I can fix it, I will."

Although he appreciates the cards grateful parents continue to send him every year, his real gratification comes from the kids. "One 17-year-old girl I worked on had a lot of facial and head issues that no one had done anything about. She was shy and quiet and protected one side of her face, camouflaging it with her hair. But afterwards, she was a completely different person."

Jaffurs says he's not going to get rich in this specialty. A good portion of his patient roster is uninsured, and their parents are often undocumented. But he remains content, with no plans to move to cosmetic surgery. "There isn't anything I'd rather do."

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