Dr Buthainah Al-Shunnar, the first Emirati female plastic surgeon, is breaking down barriers in a male-dominated field.
Aiming to help people feel their best selves both inside and out, particularly for breast cancer sufferers, she tells us why plastic surgery is so much more than a simple nip and tuck.
Can you talk us through your career?
After completing high school in Dubai, I moved to Dublin when I was 17 years old to pursue my career in medicine. The decision to study medicine came naturally to me since both my parents were doctors and have been my role models. I then moved to the USA and completed my residency in General and Plastic Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I worked in the USA for three years and obtained my Board Certifications before returning to the UAE in 2002. After two years as a Consultant Plastic Surgeon in SKMC Abu Dhabi, I returned home to establish my Clinic in 2005; that is when Al Shunnar Plastic Surgery was founded.
What inspired you to enter the field of plastic surgery?
I have always loved art and aesthetics since childhood and I feel plastic surgery is the perfect blend where art meets science. You can literally work on any part of the body and see the transformation immediately; I find this inspiring and fascinating. During my career, I realized that these transformations are not just physical but much more.
You’re the first Emirati female plastic surgeon in the UAE – what an incredible achievement. What was it like entering a male-dominated field?
In the USA, I was in a very competitive residency program as Johns Hopkins was voted as the number one hospital in the USA. I was the first foreign graduate in the program. I worked very hard during that time and was truly grateful for this opportunity. Coming back to the UAE, I was surprised to find that my patients were more comfortable sharing their concerns with me being a woman, and in fact, I felt it was an added advantage.
What are common misconceptions about plastic surgery?
The most common misconception about plastic surgery is that most think it can only be used to enhance physical appearance. Plastic surgery is a fascinating field that includes cosmetic surgery as well as reconstructive surgery such as trauma and breast cancer reconstruction. There can also be many functional advantages such as relief of back and neck pain after a breast reduction and improving breathing issues after a rhinoplasty and so on. Another misconception about plastic surgery is that it will make you look fake. You can still have plastic surgery, Botox and fillers with very natural results when done properly.
How much has plastic surgery increased in the Middle East over the last decade?
When I first set up my clinic in 2005, plastic surgery here in Dubai was still in its infancy. Over the last decade, it has increasingly gained popularity especially in the last two years and mainly due to women being more conscious.
When you have clients coming in to see you, do they outline anyone, in particular, they want to look like?
It is natural to use a known figure or celebrity as a reference point, most of my clients do that. In fact, I find it very helpful for patients to bring in images of what they like and don’t like as it gives me a good indication of what they are trying to achieve. It is rare, though, to have a patient that specifically wants to look like a celebrity.
However, there’s a side to plastic surgery many don’t see – how it can change people’s lives. Can you discuss with us how exactly it can do that?
I truly feel blessed that I chose plastic surgery as my profession. It is very satisfying to see how it can completely transform a person, and not just physically. I think it boils down to reframing perspectives… it not only changes how a person views the world and themselves but also how the world views them. Under the surface, I believe it is ultimately about the confidence of the inner self and how that is perceived on the outside.
You opened your clinic in 2005. How have things evolved since then?
One of the significant changes I have noticed is that people are more educated and well-versed in plastic surgery procedures. The demand for both surgical and non-surgical treatments has noticeably increased. Also, with improved technologies, the non-surgical antiaging industry has boomed. I have noticed that the age at which procedures are being done is much younger than before. This could be due to social media and increased awareness.
One of the key focuses for your clinic is breast surgery – you must have helped many women who have suffered from breast cancer. Can you outline how you help treat this?
A mastectomy is a procedure where the breast is removed in order to eliminate breast cancer. My role as a Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon is to recreate the breast after it has been removed. Reconstruction can be performed with the use of an implant or using one’s own tissues (e.g. back muscle or tummy fat). These procedures can have a tremendous impact on a woman’s emotional well-being.
During such treatments, what sort of relationship do you build up with your patients? It must be a very special one.
Breast cancer can be a daunting experience to go through. The amount of changes in one’s life and the uncertainty that comes with it often creates a situation where a woman may feel vulnerable and scared. I often meet patients when they are first diagnosed and I go through their entire journey with them. It is always a long-term relationship and my entire clinic is dedicated to this cause.
What are some key lessons you would like people to take from your career?
Do what you love to do and are passionate about even if it requires a lot of hard work. Take every hurdle as an opportunity to learn and grow. Be grateful every day.
Looking back over your career, what are some challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Hurdles are a part of every journey. I was brought up in a very protected environment and looking back, I can safely say that leaving home at the age of 17 was both exciting and intimidating. The most challenging period, however, was during my residency program at the John Hopkins Hospital where I was the only Arab woman in a very competitive environment which required perseverance, dedication, and will. Setting up the clinic in Dubai was also challenging as I quickly realized there is a completely different skill set in being a doctor versus being an entrepreneur. Being a business owner was a very steep learning curve for me and I feel I am still learning something new every day.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what have been the key milestones?
I became the first Emirati Female Plastic Surgeon and, up-to-date, the only American Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon. I also received the award of ‘Distinguished Surgeon’ by Dubai Health Awards in 2018, on the same day when my mother, Dr. Zainab Kazim, received her ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award. It was really the highlight of my career. My clinic, Al Shunnar Plastic Surgery, received the award for Best Cosmetic Surgery Clinic & Leading Specialist in Breast & Aesthetic Facial Surgery in 2019 & 2020, consecutively.
This is ‘The Renegade Issue’ – how would you define a renegade?
I consider myself very lucky! Despite being brought up in a conservative environment my parents were forward thinkers and very supportive of me and my journey. At the time, it was extremely unusual for a young girl to go to the US alone to pursue such a demanding career, especially in a male-dominated environment. I am forever thankful for all the support and encouragement my family gave me.
October’s – ‘The Renegade Issue’ – Download Now
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