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Ivo Pitanguy: master of artful surgery.

IT WAS EXACTLY one week before Ash Wednesday, and Rio de Janeiro was getting ready for Carnival madness. I was interviewing Professor Ivo Pitanguy in his elegant clinic on the subject of the unusual tributes he has received in his life--among them, several sambas written about him, and a character modeled on him in a popular television soap opera.

The following Sunday night, during the Carnival parade, he was to receive yet another curious tribute, this time from Estacio de Sa, a samba school in a modest neighborhood. He indicated that he was flattered and worried at the same time. "They did it rather well. I like it, it's me," he said, in reference to the gigantic head that would grace the top of one of the floats. "But, with all my public way of taking care of people--Santa Casa da Misericordia Hospital and all--I don't think the caption has the right connotation."

The theme chosen by the samba group was "Brazil, Tacky and Kitsch," and critique of the new cultural values embraced by Brazilians and their growing acquisitiveness. Pitanguy was to represent high society's extravagant consumption, as expressed by the surgeon's smiling face, several large bottles of imported "Estacio Queen" Whiskey, huge tubes of "Gringo's" Potato Chips and three words: "Champagne, Caviar, and Pitanguy." Concerned about the message this might send, the man dubbed by Time magazine as "the king of plastic surgery" wanted to suggest another line: "Pitanguy cuts off our sadness."

Accordingly, he asked a friend to be his intermediary and suggest the substitute phrase. "If they don't change it, it's OK. Everything that is culture and comes from popular manifestations is important." Then he wisely added that "you cannot demand too much" from the creators and developers of the themes of the samba schools: it is their privilege to chose their own words and symbols. His premonition was on the mark: the float designer was not at all receptive to his qualms, and, on Sunday night, the crowds filling the Sambadrome saw an eighty-minute-long, tongue-in-cheek, song-and-dance depiction of Brazilian consumerism which, among other things, poked fun at Rio's big spenders with the float captioned "Champagne, Caviar, and Pitangur."

In many ways, Rio's infatuation with luxury goods and good looks made Professor Pitanguy a likely target. However, the two mornings a week that he spends operating at a charity hospital and his well-known dedication to "cut off the sadness" of poor people who are burned, malformed or maimed reveal another side of Rio's favorite plastic surgeon.

Professor Pitanguy's private clinic opened in 1963 in the district of Botafogo. Upon entering, visitors find themselves in a manicured garden. The clinic itself occupies a house that shows extensive, tasteful remodelling. Another structure, an older mansion bought years later, now serves as an office, waiting rooms and secretarial quarters. There is a common element to both the buildings and the garden: works of art are everywhere.

"I make my whole life here," said Professor Pitanguy, still wearing his light blue surgeon's uniform and sneakers with a protective covering. "I find this room [his studio] very relaxing. I like to watch the waterfall and the little birds, and see how the whole ecosystem works."

This upper room of one of the best known addresses in Rio is indeed a relaxing and enjoyable setting. One of the walls of Pitanguy's inner sanctum has three thick glass panels the size of huge windows. Through two of those glass panes one can see a little bit of blue sky, parrots and songbirds, tropical shrubs, and cascading water settling into pools where tropical fish swim. The third one is just a fish tank. "I loved nature before ecology became a very political thing," he confessed. And so, nature is not disturbed here. The glass panes are thick enough so that the birds do not hear our noises. So as not to deprive us of their songs, microphones installed near the birds convey their sounds through speakers in the room.

Beside the operating rooms and private chambers for patients, the clinic boasts facilities that only a few such centers in the world have: an auditorium used for lectures, classes and the viewing of operations through a closed-circuit television system. It also boasts a library and reading room for the young doctors in training at the clinic. There are rooms for audio-visual and video editing and montage, and chambers to store the valuable archive of photographs of the many "befores" and "afters."

The doctor of the jet-set and the poor alike is self-effacing, engagingly authoritative in his comments and candid and droll in his story-telling. Professor Pitanguy feels content "inside his skin," both in the sense the French give to this expression (i.e. the acceptance of one's destiny and circumstances), and in a more literary way that has to do with bearing one's wrinkles gracefully. He once joked in front of a reporter about a male patient who asked him why, having lifted so many faces, he didn't fix up his own. Indeed, a sixty-four, his is an interesting, character-lined countenance with almost imperceptible bags under intelligent, dark brown eyes.

If his age does show here and there, it does not slow him down in the leas. He works intensely at the clinic and the hostpital; travels, lectures, swims, plays tennis; spends weekends relaxing and working on his private island in Angra dos Reis, where he wants to be buried. He also practices karate, taking great pride in his accomplishments in the art of self-defense. "Karate is more a way of not fighting--[you fight] only if you have to. They teach you to be sure of yourself so that you don't have to prove it."

Ivo Pitanguy was born in the State of Minas Gerais on July 5, 1926. Minas is a special place in which to grow up; it has nurtured artists and thinkers, and even one of Brazil's best known presidents, Juscelino Kubitschek. It leaves a mark, called mineiridade, which after living in Rio for almost half a century, Pitanguy has yet to lose. He admits that he is shy and has that humbleness, that feeling of extreme modesty that came from having learned in Minas that "behind each mountain there is still another mountain...," that the horizon is infinite and that reaching one's aspirations is always elusive.

"The important things I learned from my father and mother." His father, Dr. Antonio de Campos Pitanguy, was a hard-working general surgeon who taught his second son that "to love the healing arts was to love the human being." His mother, who was of Portuguese ancestry, had a passion for literature and art that enriched young Ivo's childhood. The family was Catholic, and for the Pitanguy clan God was a friendly and approachable presence. "I believe in God and I respect God," the professor told me, "I feel sometimes, through our points of contact with a human being, that every man has God in himself." To a question about whether his great surgical powers ocassionally make him feel divine, he replied: "Not everyone thinks that about my surgical powers, but I have moments when I feel that I have done something for the human being, reshaping, redoing something that nature didn't do well ... When you think of reconstructive surgery, you know that you are sometimes making something that was missing or destroyed ..." But, he confessed, even God-like givers of beauty often sense their limitations: "You always have frustrations that make you feel very humble. Sometimes when I see my patients in consultation, I feel that they have the right to have more than I can give them."

At sixteen, lying about his age, Ivo Pitanguy entered the Faculty of Medicine in Belo Horizonte, his hometown. Every day, after classes, he joined his father at the hospital and watched him operate. The relationship between the two grew very close, so much so, that at some point, Ivo felt he had to prove he could survive on his own. The future doctor was rescued by the army and taken to Rio de Janeiro.

"When I came to Rio, I was dazzled. I am a mineiro and I had never seen the sea," Pitanguy recalled. He also disclosed that he has begun writing a book about Rio similar to the sleek volume he co-authored about the Bay of Angra dos Reis, where his "Ihla dos Porcos" is located. "It's a declaracao de amor [a love proclamation] to Rio," he asserted. "I try to bring back a little bit of that emotion of my first time here. I love the mountains, but I also love the sea."

After graduating from the faculty of Medicine in Rio, Pitanguy served as an intern at the Pronto Socorro Hospital, where he did reconstructive surgery on poor people who suffered from defects or mishaps. At twenty-one he left Rio and traveled to the United States to study at Bethesda Hospital in Cincinnati. In his spare time, he would watch Professor John Longacre perform reconstructive surgery, and would listen carefully when he spoke: "Our society, whether Catholic or Protestant, has accepted affliction ... and the more the individual suffers in this world, the more he would be persuaded to aspire to go to heaven. For the moment, Ivo, you and I preach in the desert." The young disciple was still not quite convinced that savings lives was a doctor's only responsibility.

After two years, he returned to Rio and the Pronto Socorro where he tried, with little success, to apply what he had learned in Cincinnati. He also began to promote surgery as a means to improve one's appearance. His next stop was the Santa Casa da Misericordia Hospital--and the realization that he still needed to learn more. In the following two years, Marc Iselin, in Nanterre, France, was to teach him reconstructive surgery of the hand; Sir Archibald McIndoe of London taught him rhinoplasty and prepared the way for his encounter with Sir Harold Gillies, the founder of modern plastic surgery; and, finally, Pomfret Kilner, at Oxford, showed him the secrets of operating on a harelip. He also learned from his three "great masters," Longacre, Iselin and Gillies, that it was necessary to create "a school." He went back to Rio to do just that.

In 1953 he founded his "first school" at Santa Casa da Misericordia and with a camera began to document each of his cases. Ten years later, feeling that he was no longer preaching in the desert, he opened his 23-room private clinic in the Botafogo neighborhood and Ivo Pitanguy soon became a household name in Rio.

Today, his fame reaches every corner of the world. In many important cities there are Pitanguy disciples making sure that they do not discredit the "Pitanguy School"--where lessening post-operatory trauma is almost as important as the surgery itself. His own clinic, a uniquely one-man practice, attracts celebrities who want to be more beautiful or to erase the devastation of time or mishaps. Pitanguy never mentions any names but the press has collected some: King Hassan of Morroco, Gina Lollobrigida, Ultra Violet, Anita Ekberg, Princess Ira Von Furstenberg, the Duchess of Windsor, Viva, ballerina Natalia Makarova, actress-politician Melina Mercouri, Empress Farah Diba, several South American First Ladies, and a number of Hollywood stars, including Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marisa Berenson.

The professor does not hesitate to reveal his beliefs: that, first and foremost, the human body has to be an aesthetic, harmonious machine that works well and makes one feel happy with its beauty ("To me beauty is something that you can find. There must be something inside," he tells Jack Perkins in The Man With the Golden Touch, a documentary film on his life). Second, that a plastic surgeon does not have the same freedom as an artist to create or sculpt. "We cannot always put and take," he explained. There are limitations that come from each race's different concept of beauty, from the form, and from the cartilage, bone, muscles and skin that are the raw materials. He has photos of the most common deformities and congenital defects, of faces ravaged by age and bodies deformed or maimed. With them he not only illustrates how plastic and reconstructive surgery can or cannot help, but he also shows new techniques he has developed for each kind of operation.

Pitanguy is a peerless guide around his clinic. It houses valuable paintings and a glass case where he keeps the three diplomas he is proudest of: the 1984 prize awarded by UNESCO for his work at Santa Casa da Misericordia, a certificate of recognition for his work at Harvard University as a visiting professor and the black belt title he earned in karate. I also had the opportunity to peruse some of his impressive output of scientific literature, copies of his Bulletin of Plastic Surgery, Aesthetic Plastic Surgery of the Head and Body, a 425-page volume lavishly illustrated by Lothar Schmelldacher and containing everything anyone ever wanted to know about that subject, and the professor's own life story, published in France in 1983 under the title Les Chemins de la Beaute [The Roads of Beauty]. These literary and scientific publications resulted in his unanimous election to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, where he will be formally inducted in June 1991.

The press, international and domestic, pays close attention to the Professor's goings and comings, and he figures prominently in documentaries about Rio and its ethos. One cannot but feel curious about the "Pitanguy-Rio" connection. "Could Professor Pitanguy exist somewhere else?" I asked. His first respone was evasive: he admitted to feeling at home in Los Angeles even though he finds competitiveness there rather extreme. He also enjoys New York, but he prefers Europe, especially Paris, where he owns a small flat. When I posed the question a second time, he changed his approach. "I like the obsession cariocas have with beauty, although I think it has been overstated. That was not my education. I was taught to develop the spirit and the mind . . . But, anyway, I think that the physical is important . . . Rio has a fantastic culture. I am not involved in all of it, in the 'beach culture;' but, when I was young a student, I had to go to the beach because this is the only place in the world where the beach is really incorporated into the city. We don't have to go there; it is here."

Indeed, Rio is a beach, where large crowds spend many hours in open exhibitionism, fraternizing, flirting and worshipping the sun. There, a carioca Narcissus sees his reflection on the waters of the Atlantic . . . and being ever more narcissistic and thirsty for perfection, he places himself in the hands of a sculptor of the flesh. In Rio, the professor noted, "looking good is not a matter of sophistication. It's a way of being." And this means that cariocas need many Pitanguys (Rio has more plastic surgeons than public health physicians.)

Moreover, because it is a youth-focused tropical society, its residents demand the doctors who will improve nature and thus satisfy their egos. And those doctors are the unequivocal product of a society where beauty is pursued no matter what. In Rio, patients are seldom bothered by concerns of possible complications, and doctors do not live in fear of lawsuits.

All these factors have made Rio the Mecca of extensive, awesome, and sometimes chancy plastic surgery. According to many, Ivo Pitanguy could exist only in Rio. An American professor of plastic surgery explains that "some of his work is very good, not so much for its scientific value as for its creativity. In Rio, because he is who he is, Pitanguy can experiment, and other plastic surgeons can benefit from his results."

Whatever the tide of public opinion, professor Pitanguy will continue to perfect his craft. For him plastic surgey is where science and art converge.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Ivo Pitanguy, plastic surgeon
Author:Gil-Montero, Martha
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Contract with loneliness.
Next Article:Through the portals of stately ranches.

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