Woog’s World / Motherhood makes Westport doctor better at her job
Over the years, the number of female physicians has risen steadily. In Westport, some of the most well-respected general practitioners and pediatricians — among others — are female. (We’ve got a long history, too: Back in the 1950s and ’60s,the beloved Dr. Jean Beasley was one of America’s very rare African-American woman doctors.)
The number of female surgeons remains low. The number who specialize in oculofacial plastic surgery is very low.
Meet Dr. Flora Levin. She’s a Westporter with a thriving practice in that field. She does cosmetic and reconstructive eyelid surgery, along with non-surgical facial rejuvenation.
“I definitely have a surgeon’s personality: decisiveness, desire for control and order, and the expectation to figure out a definitive solution to a problem,” Levin says.
That’s the “nature” part of her background. The “nurture” came from her father. He was a general surgeon.
“My dad dragged me to museums from a young age,” she recalls. “So at 6 I was shown how Rembrandt used light to emphasize the subjects of his portraits.” She learned about proportions and balance, along with the story behind each painting.
Her professional focus on eyes — and choosing plastic surgery as the tool to exercise her creativity — was both natural and congruent. “I love beautiful things, both material — I’m human! — and immaterial,” she says. “I love the ability to create, restore and improve the appearance of the most expressive part of the human face: the eye.”
As a female physician, one of her biggest challenges was starting her career and her family simultaneously. She had her first child while in residency, the second in fellowship.
She and fellow residents joked that “we went to the hospital on call to get sleep.”
In 2010, Levin took a position at Yale. There, she saw patients with rare and complicated conditions. One was retinoblastoma, a malignant childhood eye tumor. The first time she had to remove the eye of a young boy, her own son was just a few months old.
“It’s hard to put into words the emotions I went through during that 45-minute operation,” she says. She thought about the responsibility she bore; the impact she would have on the child’s life, and the uncertainty of what tommorrow may bring for her own youngsters.
Subsequent surgeries were “easier” — but the emotions never went away.
(That first patient is now an active, fun-loving, normal 8-year-old, she says proudly. His parents organized a national non-profit organization that gives protective glasses to children with retinoblastoma.)
“Being a mother made me a better doctor and better surgeon,” Levin believes. “I am more patient and caring.” She always tries to remember that every patient puts their trust in her. “I don’t take that lightly, or for granted.”
A couple of years ago, she was on the other side of the relationship: a concerned mother. Their third child was born with a port-wine stain (congenital birthmark). Because of its location, there was concern of Sturge-Weber Syndrome, which can cause seizures and/or glaucoma.
Within hours of her birth — on New Year’s Eve — Levin and her husband read every article from the last 10 years on PWS and SWS.
Thanks to caring colleagues, who responded to calls, emails and texts on Jan. 1, the couple got appointments with top specialists in Connecticut and New York.
“There is probably no worse feeling than the uncertainty of having a sick child,” Levin notes. “Hearing a physician say, ‘Don’t worry, I got you, we will get through this,’ is the most reassuring thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Having someone else take part in your emotional burden, and carry some of it weight, is an incredible support.”
She had heard that patients hear and retain only 30 to 40 percent of what a doctor tells them. Now — bombarded with information — she knows it’s true.
“A doctor does not need to impress the vulnerable person across from them with their knowledge,” Levin says. “That’s not what medicine is about. As physicians, we have to care for the patient enough to guard and protect their emotions. So I think about what to tell my patients. I give them important, practical information about their diagnosis and treatment.”
Levin’s daughter is now a “beautiful 2 ½-year-old with a faint pink birthmark on her forehead and eyelid.” She has had normal eye exams, and no neurological problems.
Thankfully, Levin says, she does not have to give bad news too often. Many of her patients now come for elective surgery. But no matter what brings them to her, she always assures each and every one: “I’ll take good care of you.”
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.