Reconstructing bodies, rebuilding lives
By Stephen Dale
There’s a lot more to the field of reconstructive surgery than meets the eye.
At a surface level, reconstructive surgeons restore damaged or malformed limbs, facial features or other physical structures, explains uOttawa alumna Siba Haykal (BSc ’04, MD ’07). Her work has already ranged from cutting-edge research to treating North American cancer and accident survivors to operating on victims of war during an international mission to Ukraine.
However, the invisible impact of this work is often as important as the more obvious restorations.
“We restore function but we also restore a sense of psychological well-being, which can change the way a patient approaches life,” she says. “Really, a big part of what we do is mental health.”
That fact was driven home to her during a 2014 mission to Ukraine organized by Operation Rainbow Canada, a voluntary organization that provides free reconstructive surgery around the world. Led by craniofacial plastic surgeon Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, with whom Dr. Haykal had studied, the mission to Ukraine aimed to repair some of the catastrophic injuries suffered by unarmed civilians during the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14. The protest movement, which ultimately toppled the government, met with extreme violence from security forces.
“Many of the patients we operated on had very serious injuries that were horrible in the way they occurred,” she recalls. “I remember one child who wasn’t even near the protests when he had acid thrown in his face and suffered extensive burns. But despite their horrific experiences, these were very resilient people.”
Making a human connection
In addition to many gruelling hours in the operating room intricately restoring damaged tissue and bone, the doctors’ work involved establishing a personal connection with the patients. An important goal was to help them realize that physical reconstruction could do much to restore the abilities, dreams and sense of self that had been stolen by war.
The mission has had many positive spin-offs. Patients continue to receive follow-up care, and Ukrainian specialists have since travelled to Canada to upgrade their skills.
“The doctors and nurses in Ukraine have fewer resources, but their skills are amazing,” Dr. Haykal says. The experience also provided her with important lessons she took back to North America, such as simply feeling grateful to live in a peaceful environment with access to healthcare.
After a few years performing reconstructive surgery for cancer patients and trauma victims in Albany, New York, Dr. Haykal has now taken a position at the University Health Network in Toronto. She will continue working as a surgeon while also resuming her research in the area of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
Specifically, she’s developing a means for patients who have lost part of their airway, due to cancer, trauma or a birth defect, to receive a trachea transplant without the use of anti-rejection drugs. Her method involves removing all the cells from a donor’s trachea to leave behind a scaffold, and then repopulating that scaffold with the patient’s own cells, making it safe for transplantation.
Drawn to humanitarian work
Some seemingly serendipitous events steered Dr. Haykal toward this highly specialized career path. For example, she remembers her mother calling her to watch a television show about Doctors Without Borders when she was 15.
“The program showed a child with a big lesion that involved his nose, part of his face and likely part of his brain, although I didn’t understand the intricacies of it then,” she says. “That those doctors completely changed his life through their work was something that stayed with me.”
Later, after earning an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, her early fascination with reconstructive surgery was reborn.
“At uOttawa’s medical school, we were able to do ‘observership’ electives early on,” she says. “And while shadowing Dr. Joan Lipa at Toronto General Hospital, I saw different things, including breast cancer reconstruction, and got a better idea of what plastic surgeons do.”
A rising star in her field, Siba Haykal has many challenges in front of her. Still, she hopes to find the time to participate in other humanitarian missions in the future. “We can make a difference in the lives of people who have been through a lot,” she says. “We can help them to have hope.”