A conversation with Dr. Lara Devgan, Part I

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“Part of being a woman in a male-dominated field is trying to redefine what modern beauty is and what the new normal is. I don't think it's the pulled-up, puffy Park Avenue 1990s faces. And I don't think it's the enormous LA breasts. I think it's something understated that resonates more with me and people like me.”

Who says you can’t have it all?  You can, just maybe not in the way that you might think, according to Dr. Lara Devgan. Not only does the Yale-educated, Columbia-trained plastic surgeon have a thriving medical practice in New York City, but she also has a happy marriage, a skincare line, a podcast and six (that’s right six) children under the age of 10. 

How does she do it and how has she remained sane during lockdown?  Plus, what’s it like to be that rare creature — a woman in a grueling, male-dominated field?  Find out in our inaugural podcast, Femmes Fabulous (just click below), where we would be remiss not to also dive into beauty tips and promising present and future aesthetic procedures.



And for those that would prefer to read, rather than listen, the interview has been edited below for your reading pleasure. Part 1 of 2 parts.


We are here today with Dr. Lara Devgan — New York City plastic surgeon, skincare entrepreneur, wife, and mother to, wait for it, six children. Yes, six young children! Dr. Devgan, how do you do it?

Oh my gosh. How do I do it? I don’t know. Just one step at a time. One day at a time.

What’s a typical day for you?

I wake up early in the morning, my husband and I get our kids going for breakfast, we get ready for school. Then when are baby sitters arrive we quickly run to the gym together and my husband and I work out together and then have a cup of coffee together as our little togetherness ritual in the morning, and then I head to work. And my practice, as you know, is about half surgical and half non-surgical. And that’s by design because I really think that one compliments the other, and vice-versa. And truly the most beautiful, natural, aesthetic results come from having a combination of surgical and non-surgical treatments.

Dr. Lara Devgan with her husband, Patrick Verdonck: “We try to stay on the same page and I try to always see where he’s coming from before insisting that I’m right. No, I’m just kidding. I’m not always right.”

What time do you get to the office?

It depends on the day. Surgical days are earlier, sometimes starting at 7:30 a.m. And non-surgical days are about 9 o’clock usually. And then, you know, sprinkled in throughout the day there are meetings for my skincare line [Dr. Devgan Scientific Beauty], which is becoming kind of a big deal. We’re launching at Sephora next month, which is exciting.

Congratulations!

Thank you. And then I have a master class that I run. I am involved in the art world, different charitable organizations. So I do little things here and there during the day. And then I try to wrap up every day by 5 p.m., do some press interviews, meetings, business types of things and then I always love to have dinner with my kids. I check everybody’s homework and backpack and workbook. And then bedtime and like our little downtime rituals. And then I study for my cases the next day.

My mind is just blown right now, because I can hardly keep it together with two cats and a husband.  How old are your kids?

They’re 1, 3, 4, 5, 5, and 7

Wow. What is it like to be a female plastic surgeon in the male-dominated field?

I think plastic surgery as an industry is very misunderstood, and one of the reasons for that is that 80-85% of plastic surgery patients are women, but only 10% of board-certified plastic surgeons are women. And so you can have this situation that almost feels like Pygmalion where men are dictating beauty standards and body image standards for women. When I entered this field, it always made me feel a little bit strange and a little destabilized.

What I am trying to do in this field is to make plastic surgery feel more empowering for women — that these little aesthetic changes that people may want to make are coming from a place of self-confidence and body positivity.  I’m really trying to redefine what ‘normal’ is, because medical aesthetics and plastic surgery are very strange. It’s weird to go have somebody put a sharp object in your face or body because you want to look prettier.  That’s just an inherently weird concept. But the thing that is not weird is human beings’ fundamental desire to always put their best face forward whether it means working on your abs, or blow-drying your hair or putting on your perfect lipstick shade or your perfect mascara, we all want these little iterative improvements that make us feel confident and make us feel attractive.  And I think that there’s a way to make plastic surgery feel good to people — where they don’t feel like a different person, they just feel like a better version of themselves.

“Ultimately one of the best things about surgery is it is a very egalitarian profession. There’s a lot of hype, there’s lots of spin, [but] surgery is very democratic because meritocracy rules and if you’re good at what you do, you will succeed. And if you’re not, you won’t. And in plastic surgery, in particular, [because] your results are visually apparent, right in front of others to see, it takes your race and gender and ethnicity and all of those other demographics out of the equation. If you can do the right thing, behave in an ethical manner, be a nice, compassionate, thoughtful person, and do excellent, beautiful, detail-oriented work, then you can have a career in this field.”
There was an article in The New York Times recently about being a female surgeon, a resident as a woman, explaining that even as medical schools have reached gender parity, certain specialties remain stubbornly male-dominated, particularly surgery. Only 23% of surgeons are women with a high attrition rate. What was it like for you going to medical school and doing your residency with brutal 80-100-hour work weeks?  Were you pregnant at the time?

It was very hard. I did my residency at Columbia Cornell New York-Presbyterian Hospital.  Residency is tough. It was very grueling. I would work a couple of days in a row. There were times when I was done working but I was too tired to go home, so I’d go to sleep in my call room. And for those of you who don’t know what a call room is or you haven’t seen Grey’s Anatomy, it’s like you have a little cot in a windowless closet in the hospital and that’s where you sleep. If you get to sleep. But most of the time overnight, I didn’t even see my call room. It was very busy. I think residency was one of the most amazing, incredible times of my life, and also one of the most difficult times. It’s really when you go from being a fresh medical school graduate to actually being an independently operating surgeon.

I think the reason that it’s a male-dominated field is because those are very precious years of your life. Basically your entire reproductive window is spent inside a hospital. Or most of it anyway. In your mid to late 20s and into your early to mid-30s you’re training to be a surgeon. And it’s very hard to do your laundry, let alone go to the gym, let alone meet someone and get married and have a kid during that time of life when everybody else is doing it.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I think it taught me fortitude, it gave me grit, and strength of character.

I really feel like residency is kind of like sharpening the knife. It makes you able to distill a really complex situation into an elegant solution. And it gives you the strength of character to be the person who says, “Pass me the ball,” when there’s one second left on the clock. You know, you’re the person who can take responsibility for other people and make good decisions in times of stress. And that was amazing. Whether you’re a man or a woman, a surgical residency will make you feel like a very competent person.

[But] it’s very hard as a woman in surgical residency to find female role models who seem to have a happy home life, a family, and also a career. And that was something that was really important for me to be able to have both of those things. I think you can do it if you want to do it.  It’s not easy, but it is possible.

Was sexism a part of the equation at all during your training?  

I think that society has a widespread and pervasive culture of creating a climate that’s not necessarily accepting for all kinds of people. And I do think that that’s changing and every year it’s getting better. But there were certainly moments in my coming of age as a surgeon when I was asked why I even wanted to become a surgeon. Or what was I doing here, and why wasn’t I outside of the hospital doing all of the other things that people think of women as doing. You know, cooking and having babies and making a drink for my husband when he came home from work. That kind of thing.

But I do think that if you’re true to yourself and you maintain your principles, you can survive and succeed as a woman in a male-dominated field. Or as, you know, a man in a female-dominated field. Or really as an ‘other’ in a pool of people who don’t look like you or act like you. Ultimately one of the best things about surgery is it is a very egalitarian profession. There’s a lot of hype, there’s lots of spin, [but] surgery is very democratic because meritocracy rules and if you’re good at what you do, you will succeed. And if you’re not, you won’t. And in plastic surgery, in particular, [because] your results are visually apparent, right in front of others to see, it takes your race and gender and ethnicity and all of those other demographics out of the equation. If you can do the right thing, behave in an ethical manner, be a nice, compassionate, thoughtful person, and do excellent, beautiful, detail-oriented work, then you can have a career in this field.

Dr. Devgan with her daughters: “It’s very hard as a woman in surgical residency to find female role models who seem to have a happy home life, a family, and also a career. And that was something that was really important for me to be able to have both of those things. I think you can do it if you want to do it. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

Is it safe to say then, that you would encourage your daughters and your sons too to go into medicine if that’s what they wanted to do?

To me it’s the most amazing profession in the world and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It’s so incredible, whether you’re a plastic surgeon or a cardiac surgeon or a pediatrician or any kind of doctor, that the whole field is about meeting a stranger in a vulnerable moment when they really need you and having access to this almost magical, mystical skill set and this whole other second language of anatomy and physiology and pharmacology. And being able to marry all of those little things together and get them through a difficult moment.

The average American has somewhere between one and two surgeries in their lifetime.  So if I’m doing somebody’s facelift, or blepharoplasty or breast augmentation, I think this is one of the two biggest healthcare moments this person is going to have in their entire life. My hands will stay with them forever. So, make it count. In terms of my kids, right now they want to be a fire chief, a police officer, a ballerina, a princess, a unicorn, and the president of the United States.

How do you reconcile being a plastic surgeon,  working in a field that is so image-obsessed, with having two young, impressionable daughters?

I’ve thought about it a lot actually. The answer is more complicated than the question because there’s no easy answer. First, I think of plastic surgery as a field that’s about restoration. Whether it’s restoration of your self-confidence or sense of self, or a more youthful complexion, or your body before you had a baby, or your face before you had a car accident. Or restoration of just normal anatomy. So there’s a whole world to plastic surgery that’s not just about being the most beautiful person that there is.

And the bulk of my training really focused on cleft lip and palate repair, facial fracture reconstruction, cancer reconstruction, burn surgery, and burn reconstruction. It’s a really rich field that is so much more than the media representation of fast, flashy cars, and obnoxious displays of conspicuous consumption, and exaggerated features.  I think plastic surgery is an extremely academic, serious, detail-oriented field, and it’s very different from what I see when I watch E! Entertainment television, which is rarely.

I know this is a very amorphous question, but what do you think is the most important thing in life?

God. I mean I think the most important thing in life is connections with other people.  I once read that love is just an excuse to look deeply into somebody else’s eyes. And I think that that feeling of being known and knowing someone else is extremely intimate and is the basis of the most important things in my life.

If you could spend a month anywhere, where would it be?

If I could spend a month anywhere. I mean, can I say right here? I really like my life and I really like where I am physically and metaphorically. I think I am very fortunate but I also work very hard to try to be the architect of the life that I like. I love living in New York City, I love what I do. I feel really lucky every day to be able to do this. Besides that, the Maldives are pretty great.

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