“This Is the Best Job in the World” — How a Near-Fatal Accident Showed This Doctor the Power of Plastic Surgery

Elisabeth Kramer on 20 May 2015 at 3:30pm

Barbara Persons
Dr. Barbara Persons (left) and her twin sister before the accident. Dr. Persons more than two decades after the accident.

It was a snowy day in Vermont when RealSelf Top Doctor Barbara Persons was hit by a semi. She’d been on a ski trip, heading to Sugarbush Resort to celebrate the end of exams with friends. Her boyfriend was behind the wheel when a semi plowed into their car. The driver, she says, had a seizure while drinking and driving.

“I had that kind of weird, calm white light experience,” she recalls of the accident. “Then I woke up in the hospital and had broken every bone in my face, my sternum, both of my collarbones, and my scapulas.”

At just 25 years old, Dr. Persons found her life completely upended. After four surgeries in Vermont, she flew home to San Francisco. It was there where she had the rest of her 18 reconstructive facial surgeries. Her boyfriend, the only other passenger in the car (pictured below), recovered back East.

Persons Car AccidentA medical student at the University of Vermont at the time of the accident, Dr. Persons continued her education on the West Coast. She did both her clinical rotations and the majority of her reconstructive surgeries at Stanford and University of California, San Francisco. She also found a new direction for her studies.

“I discovered I wanted to do what somebody had done for me,” she says. Having been a patient, she saw first-hand the power of aesthetic surgery. She’d seen it in how doctors interacted with her while she recovered. She noticed time again how they deferred to her sister despite the fact that she was lucid and alert. The only difference was that her face was still far from fully reconstructed.

“The whole time I was getting reconstructed, [the doctors would] talk to her instead of looking at me and talking to me,” Dr. Persons says. It was proof, she felt, of what so many studies have shown. That people who are beautiful are often perceived as more intelligent, more successful, and more trustworthy.

“People treat us really differently based on how we look,” says Dr. Persons. “That’s what made me feel like cosmetic surgery is really valid.”

She’s carried that experience into her own practice. “I think it’s very, very important that whatever state [a person may be in], realize that the person in there might not relate necessarily to what he or she looks like,” she says.

Dr. Person’s time as a patient has also taught her the limits of surgery. “There’s always better,” she says. “I’ve never had a perfect surgery done on me and I’ve been fortunate to be worked on by some of the most amazing surgeons available.”

It’s now been 23 years since the accident and Dr. Persons is thriving. She practices in the San Francisco area and, at home, has three young children. While all major reconstructive surgeries are behind her, she’ll likely always have something that’ll need maintenance, but she finds joy in the experience she’s able to share with her patients.

“For me, getting to change people’s lives … is the biggest privilege,” she says. “This is the best job in the entire world.”

Photos source: Courtesy of Dr. Barbara Persons