A Top Reconstructive Surgeon Shares Tips for Balancing Work and Play

Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Robb Report Health & Wellness as “Balancing Act

Los Angeles surgeon juggles his philanthropic endeavors with his work in the O.R. and time on the athletic field with his family.

Reza Jarrahy’s Triumph Street Triple R may be the ideal metaphor for his life: a powerful machine held in check—and propelled forward—by the slightest nudge or recalibration of its expert driver. 

Such a deft hand underpins both professional and personal endeavors for Reza Jarrahy, MD. He balances his work as a cosmetic facial surgeon with his responsibilities as a craniofacial reconstructive surgeon and codirector of the UCLA Craniofacial Clinic and the UCLA Face Transplantation Program. And he juggles all of that with a busy family life and finding a few minutes—literally, sometimes just minutes—to clear his head with a jaunt on the Triumph up the Pacific Coast Highway.

Dr. Jarrahy often starts a 12-hour day at the office before his family awakens, so he makes it a priority to be home for dinner with his wife and their three children. He maximizes family time by turning off all electronics and ignoring the pager unless it is an emergency. His children all play sports, which he coaches when he can and attempts to never miss a game, and on weekends the family hikes, bikes, spends time at the beach, and plays football or soccer.

Family, work, and travel leave little room to focus on personal health, which Dr. Jarrahy squeezes in with trips to the gym, running the Santa Monica Stairs,  and 7-minute workouts on his iPhone. “I’m very health-conscious and an athlete, so I try to put that into a weekly schedule tailored around work and family,” he says. “I am not the guy who will wake up at 5:00 a.m. to work out for an hour. If I have a later morning start, I’ll go to the gym before work. If [I start work] earlier, then I will go to the gym later. And we do try to work out together because our kids are all athletic.” 

His commitment to putting family first is a trait of his Middle Eastern heritage. “My dad was an ob-gyn, an immigrant with a typical story. He came here with no job, $200 in his pocket, and a 2-year-old kid, and he—in very typical immigrant style—pulled up his bootstraps and provided,” Dr. Jarrahy says. “Whatever success I have is because I watched him and learned the value of work. And if you work very hard, you can achieve pretty much anything you want. If it is a priority, you will achieve it. For me, family is a priority. Even though I am working long hours, I want to be in touch with my kids.”

Watching his father practice medicine also influenced Dr. Jarrahy’s approach to philanthropy, one that balances both community and global needs and restores parity. “My father chose to practice in one of the underprivileged neighborhoods in New York City,” he says. “His priority was always to make sure his patients got the best care possible, providing access to all that they needed, and to worry about reimbursement and finances secondarily. This was not a great business model, but his example taught me the true meaning of humanitarianism.” He applied these lessons to his own specialty and created the Foundation for Craniofacial Surgery (foundationforcraniofacialsurgery.com) to address discrepancies in access to health care for patients with skull and facial deformities, including cleft lip and palate. The foundation helps children by funding cutting-edge scientific research, supporting clinical care and social services, and by underwriting numerous global health outreach efforts in developing nations.

“To my great delight,” he says, “I have found that people are eager and willing to give to help children and their families both in Los Angeles and overseas.”

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Between his foundation work, his laboratory research, writing, presenting, teaching, operating, and seeing patients, his days may appear more scattered than centered. But his family anchors him, and the road he travels professionally is charged with meaning. 

“People think cosmetic surgery is frivolous, but I strongly believe in the holistic approach to a condition,” Dr. Jarrahy says. It is just the other side of the coin of his craniofacial work. “Craniofacial surgery gives me an appreciation of the anatomy of the face that [may] elude many cosmetic surgeons who focus primarily on the skin and soft tissues,” he explains. “In treating complex craniofacial birth defects, traumatic injuries of the face, and deformities due to the removal of cancers of the head and neck, I learned how to take the face apart and put it back together from the skin down to the bone. That has given me an appreciation for what is possible in surgery and what is not, and what is safe and what is excessively risky, in both the reconstructive setting and in aesthetic surgery.”

Dr. Jarrahy also sees that his facial rejuvenation patients and his craniofacial patients often share similar motivation. “Many of my patients look in the mirror and note something about their facial appearance that causes them to have low self-esteem, preventing them from feeling fulfilled or from becoming their best selves.” He has found that “changing the appearance and improving function can help all such patients face the world with greater self-confidence that will inevitably enrich their lives, as well as the lives of their loved ones and the well-being of their communities.” He adds, “We all benefit from people bringing that positivity into the world.” 

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