When Chad Gordon was a third-year medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine back in 2001, he sent a letter to every plastic surgery department in the country asking if he could come spend a few months doing research.
Only two responded.
One, at UCLA, turned him down. Fortunately for Gordon, the other was at Massachusetts General, the hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and the doctor who invited him was pioneering a brand new field: face transplants.
This past summer, Gordon, who's from Abington, became clinical director of the face transplant program at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Gordon has an advantage. As a fellow at the Cleveland Clinic in 2008, he was on the team that performed the first face transplant in the country.
"So much work goes into it, because it's all new. It's still an experimental surgery," he says. "No two face transplants are the same, because you design it based on what you need."
Gordon hasn't performed a face transplant at Hopkins yet. For now, he's focusing on laying the groundwork.
"Once the protocol is approved, we might be able to do two or three face transplants a year -- though it's hard to quote a number, because each one takes so much preparation and work, and we're still learning about it," he says.
Meanwhile, he's also busy performing other types of craniomaxillofacial surgery (surgery of the skull, jaw and face) and taking on a new role as an assistant professor in Hopkins' department of plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Gordon's local roots are extensive: He had his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and went to Abington High School. His grandparents, Edward and Charna Gordon, live in Elkins Park.
It was Edward and Charna Gordon who encouraged their grandson to go into medicine. He enrolled at George Washington University as a chemistry major, but discovered a love of drawing during a required art course and switched to fine arts. (Craniomaxillofacial surgery is "like Sculpture 101," he says.)
Because the specialty is so competitive, he went for general surgery first, fulfilling his internship and residency requirements at Cooper University Hospital/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, N. J. During that time he met his future wife, fellow Philadelphian Abbey Felzer, who, Gordon says, shares credit with his grandparents for being his support through the years.
Years later, he returned to Harvard for a craniomaxillofacial surgery fellowship, before following W.P. Andrew Lee, the doctor who had originally invited him up to Harvard, down to Hopkins.
"We're going to be trying some new things here. We're studying stuff that hasn't ever been done before," he says.
"It's never boring, I'll tell you that much."