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Article

Artist of the Flesh
jason orlovich buzz fine arts writer
ellen steele buzz photographer
   
 
Even the magazines line up. Tables rise at a perfect 90-degree angle from the floor. The carpet has gray boxes every three feet. Even the sunlight carves into a semblance of order as it enters the square windows. And the iron beams are perfectly in line with space the ceiling creates. 

The room’s symmetry is unbearable. The building’s symmetry is nothing short of genius—if not meticulously planned out. 

Waiting for Dr. Robert Klausner in a warm room in Carle Clinic’s Center for Cosmetic Surgery, 1702 S. Mattis Ave, Champaign, one cannot help but wonder about the appearance of things. Even more immediate subjects in the room deserve judgement. Like, what part of her body does that woman hate? Do the nurses get an employee discount? Will Business Weekly and ESPN Magazine (as opposed to GQ or Vanity Fair) satisfy Klausner’s average customer? 

A woman wearing what looks like a hair net peers out from behind the check-in window and speaks for the invisible doctor. 

“He’ll be finished in about 45 minutes.”
Over the phone a day earlier, Klausner describes an especially “intense” five-hour procedure in which he performed a complete cosmetic overhaul. His yawns that night were well deserved, considering five hours was less than typical for the three-and-a-half days of scheduled operations during a normal week. Today would be a “lighter surgery day.” But that included, among other procedures steeped in medical jargon, “putting a kid’s ear back together.” 

When asked what every doctor has been asked at least once in their career—”What made you want to do what you’re doing?”—Klausner answers sincerely and without hesitation. He notes a predisposition to high dexterity and an interest in art and aesthetics as a child—two seemingly incongruous motivations in the very technical field of medicine. 

Yet, as Klausner’s commanding, conversational tone takes over, such claims fall into place without question. Expected answers involving dead pets, large trucks and adolescence now seem all too soft.
 
 
 
“I’ve always been someone who’s enjoyed doing things with my hands,” he says. “Facial and plastic surgery is the most challenging [specialization] there is; it’s one that has to reach the highest standard.” Indeed, Klausner’s career revolves around daily challenges outside of simple medical cures—unlike other medical fields, the quality of a plastic surgeon’s work is almost solely judged by the patient. 

“The [plastic surgery] patient is unique,” Klausner says. “He or she is a shopper.” Klausner noted plastic surgery is a “very, very competitive field.” 

“[Patients] make [doctors] competitive with each other,” he says. “They shop on the Net, talk to people; they’re regular, well-educated folks who are interested in looking better and feeling better about themselves.”
Such phrases might read like an infomercial, but Klausner’s reasons are legitimate. 

“They all want to look in the mirror ... want to look as good as they feel,” he says. “You see yourself as a certain way and you don’t see what’s reflected in the mind’s eye.”
Klausner says the most rewarding experience as a doctor is seeing a patient’s self-confidence change after an operation. Still, his decision to become a plastic surgeon was not made without experiencing other fields during his rotations in medical school. 

“I like the operating room and I like the challenge,” he says, returning to the original question. “I wanted a combination of an office practice with a surgical practice.” 

At 38, Klausner considers himself young for his profession, but the years of medical training at the University of Pennsylvania might cause anyone to age more quickly than expected. 

Here is Klausner’s history printed in the manner it was recited: Four years at the University of Pennsylvania; four years of medical school (Pennsylvania); one year of internships in general surgery; four years of surgery specializing in the head and neck; a one-year fellowship and five years of practice beginning in 1995 in Danville, Ill. Miscellaneous information Klausner tossed in included being born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana and attending a Jesuit high school. 

While every case is unique in terms of a patient’s motivation for seeing a plastic surgeon, Klausner says he begins every meeting the same way. Following an introduction, he asks one question: “What brings you to see me today?” 

“Then I let them start talking,” he says. Klausner says above all, he tries to “focus the patient” to help them figure out what they want. 

“I try to get them to prioritize,” he says. “Then I ask, ‘If there’s one thing I can fix for you today, what would it be?’” Klausner says he is especially weary of patients who do not know what they want after an initial meeting. He said that is always a “red flag” situation.

Similarly, Klausner will refuse to do surgery that cannot be done. He notes cases where a man who looks like Danny DeVito will walk in with a picture of Brad Pitt and say, “Make me look like this.”
“You need to present realistic things,” he says. “I always tell [my patients] that the sign on the wall says ‘physician’ not ‘magician.’” Other common grounds for the doctor’s refusal might include a patient’s current state of health. 

“I’m like a pilot,” he says. “I have to say if things are safe to proceed.” Klausner cites the risk of a recent heart-attack victim withstanding anesthesia six months after an operation. “Then I tell them to call up their doctor,” he says. 

It would seem a large part of Klausner’s job before any surgery is done to make such goals or complications clear to the patient.
“I give them a lot of information on the first visit,” he says, referring to the catalogue of videos and literature in his office. “And a lot of people [will go home] and want to digest that.” Klausner says he uses a computer morphing program to show patients before and after photos of what could be done. 

“That’s my job to get them [on the same page] before surgery,” he says. “It’s like any other service that you’re going to sell to people.”
Indeed, such intense preparation is to be expected when what is being sold can range between “a few hundred to $10,000.” While the doctor states, rather plainly, “the price is the price,” he said there is “not a day that goes by when people don’t try to barter” for his services. Regardless, the results might not always meet the expectations. 

“There are so many reasons why people are dissatisfied,” he says. “You try to handle them the best you can, but the commonly dissatisfied patient is the impatient patient.” 

“Those who really want a quick fix get frustrated,” he says. It might take a few months to a year before the swelling is gone after an operation, he says. 

Klausner’s solution to solving this very realistic problem is to see his patients frequently after surgery. 

“It’s quality control for me so I can see how my results are holding up,” he says. Klausner usually schedules checkups on the day after the operation, then after two weeks, one month, three months, six months and one year—”I enjoy doing that.” 

Still, the need for an occasional touch-up is always a possibility.
“Sometimes we do a little spot welding down the line,” he says, comparing his job to painting or woodworking. “You really reserve the right to do that.” Yet Klausner says because his standards are normally higher than his patients’, additional surgery is rare.
“It’s usually me who offers,” he says, adding that is the case with most good doctors. “I tend to be more critical of my results than my patients are.”

 

A more interesting situation sometimes occurs when a patient will ask Klausner to “correct” the work of another doctor.
“That’s definitely more challenging,” he says. One is instantly reminded of Klausner’s motivations for choosing the field.
“The patient is already dissatisfied with a plastic surgeon,” he says. “They’re skeptical and naturally so.” Klausner says trying to put those patients at ease is more difficult than with first-time patients. 

Yet perhaps the most interesting point of Klausner’s inside knowledge comes at the end of the conversation when he mentions cosmetic surgery’s stigma and its gradual shift over the past 20 years from being a “Beverly Hills phenomenon” to becoming “more and more accepted.” 

“In some circles, it has become a badge of honor,” he says plainly. “It becomes a status symbol.”
On one hand, it is good to know a man of Klausner’s power will not turn every Danny DeVito of the world into a Brad Pitt. Yet if such transformations are becoming more socially acceptable, one might begin to wonder about things other than a waiting room’s symmetry. 

Klausner offers a simple comparison: “It’s really no different than braces, right?”
The doctor makes his point clear.

 
 

 

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