May 5, 2015 | by Robin Heffler
Creative expression comes in two very different forms for Robert Kang, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of otolaryngology and a facial plastic surgeon at City of Hope.
In his day job, Kang performs surgeries on patients with complex head and neck cancers, specializing in advanced facial reconstructions and related procedures.
On some evenings and weekends, he performs on stage, playing guitar and keyboard and singing in the indie rock band Help the Doctor. With a style similar to Smashing Pumpkins, the band has performed its original music at the House of Blues, the Roxy and other celebrated venues, and offers songs on iTunes and Spotify. It also raises money for charities ─ primarily two overseas organizations that work with children who have craniofacial deformities.
“Music is definitely a way to relax,” said Kang, whose band includes an oral surgeon on drums, another plastic surgeon on bass and a craniofacial fellow on guitar and lead vocals. Kang and two of the musicians formed the band when he was a fellow in microvascular facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA several years ago, and it continues to be a way to unwind from their high-pressure jobs.
Kang’s work as a facial plastic surgeon involves another kind of artistry. “I need to use creative reconstructive techniques because surgery can be very disfiguring in areas that are visible, like the face,” he said.
For one patient, Kang performed a neck lift because one side of the patient’s neck sagged after surgery and radiation on the other side. For patients with difficulty breathing after surgery to remove a facial tumor, he has artfully adjusted the shape of their nose to improve their ability to inhale and exhale normally. Kang has even created new eyebrows for a surgical and radiation patient by performing a hair transplant in those spots.
When complex cases require the transfer of bone or tissue from one part of the body to another, Kang’s microvascular skills – in which he uses a microscope to help him connect small blood vessels – are essential.
For a woman in her 20s with tongue cancer, those skills proved vital. Kang removed about 90 percent of her tongue, and then reconstructed it with soft tissue from her forearm. “We were able to connect the nubbin of the tongue she had left to the transferred tissue, so that she could still move her tongue and swallow,” he said.
Kang’s most common surgeries include removal and reconstruction of the jaws of adults who’ve been longtime smokers and drinkers, and laser or robotic surgery for tumors of the mouth, throat or voice box.
When asked what he most enjoys about his work, Kang said, “The fact that I get to interact with patients in a very intimate way, when their guards are down and they’re fighting for their lives. And then, when you get good results that eradicate cancer or reconstruct them in a way that they can function again, I can’t think of any more rewarding kind of work.”
Learn more about treatment and research of head and neck cancers at City of Hope.
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