Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez made history last year when he performed the most extensive face transplant in history. His patient was Richard Norris, a man who spent fifteen years covering his face with masks and leaving his home in the dark to avoid stares. But in 2005, Dr. Rodriguez, a plastic surgeon at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland, came into Norris’ life. After years of research, in 2011, Dr. Rodriguez performed the ground-breaking 36-hour procedure that would not only give Norris a new lease on life, but would also give hope to researchers wanting to heal soldiers disfigured by wounds from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “It’s the most comprehensive face transplant in medical history,” Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, chief of plastic, reconstructive and maxillofacial surgery at the center, told NBC’s Ann Curry in her special, “A Face in the Crowd.” Dr. Rodriguez talked to NBC Latino about the joy of helping patients get their lives back and how education changed his own life.
HOMETOWN: The first few years of my life I grew up in Puerto Rico and then we moved to Miami, Florida, which is pretty much where I grew up. I consider it my home.
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS DO FOR A LIVING: My father worked two jobs. He worked in the wholesale flower business and in the commercial flower business. My mother was basically his right hand and also a home maker.
FIRST PAYING JOB: My first paying job was in the landscaping business when I was 14 years old. It was fun because you were getting money. It was hard work. I really enjoyed it. I worked with two friends and we were out all day in the summertime.
WORST DAY ON THE JOB: Probably feeling helpless that you cannot help someone. That’s probably one of the most difficult things you have to encounter. So it’s not one defined moment, one defined day.
LIVING PERSON YOU MOST ADMIRE: That’s a tough one because the person I admire the most is my grandfather. And I think no one really meets up to his standards just yet. But there are plenty of people that I admire. Probably the person I can think of immediately is my mentor, my teacher, whose name is Paul Manson. He was the Chief of Plastic surgery when I was a resident. And if I could be a tenth of the person that he is, I’d feel that I’d reach a tremendous amount of accomplishment.
TELL US WHY YOU ADMIRE YOUR GRANDFATHER: He was an individual who came from very simple means in Cuba, who was self-taught to read and ultimately grew up the ranks in the system and owned businesses. Very resourceful individual, professional. But also a very humble man, a caring man who you could talk to about anything. And he was always incredibly understanding. I think to have that kind of balance and be a professional achiever, but also to have a well-rounded sense of self, no insecurities – that’s what I admire the most about him. And I was fortunate enough to have him in my life when I was growing up.
FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY: My favorite food memory is probably being back home in Miami with my families around a pig roast with the traditional fixings of a Cuban meal. The rice, the beans, the plantains. So I think that would be the key right there. That’s like heaven on a plate.
IF YOU COULDN’T DO WHAT YOU’RE DOING FOR A LIVING, WHAT WOULD YOU DO: I would own either a bistro or some kind of a restaurant where we would serve the best wine. We would have great cocktails. And we would make some special plate on a daily basis with live music. And I would likely have artists from the community come. Whether they’re painters, sculptors, singers, they would perform there.
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION: My education is something that I treasure greatly. I think that has opened doors for me and it’s something that I will value for the rest of my life.