By Kelsey Ryan, The Wichita Eagle, published July 6, 2014
You don’t typically think of ballet eventually leading to a career in medicine.
But that was the career path of Susan Lovelle, a plastic surgeon in Newton. Lovelle was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. A professional ballet dancer for 17 years, she danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Atlanta Ballet and Princeton Ballet. As she got older, she started the search for a new career and thought about her childhood ambitions to be a doctor.
She stopped dancing in 1983. The next year, she started medical school at Columbia University.
Lovelle, who moved to Kansas in 2008 with her husband, ophthalmologist Kevin Allen, said she was the first plastic surgeon based in Newton.
“Initially they thought I’d just mostly do breast reconstruction, but it’s turned out there’s a very large calling for all kinds of plastic surgery here. I’ve had people from Wichita, Salina, Hutchinson and out of state,” she said.
She also does medical missions. Lovelle recently returned from a week in Amman, Jordan, where she cared for Syrian refugees who needed plastic surgery to repair wounds from the ongoing fighting in Syria.
You recently returned from an overseas medical mission trip in Jordan?
All throughout my career I wanted to do and have done mission work. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the Life Enhancement Association for People Foundation joined together and put out a training course. … I felt like I needed to do this at this point in my career, to give back.
It was all Syrian refugees at the hospital in Jordan. Bomb blasts, amputations, revisions of amputations. People who had injuries in the past and were previously operated on, like a tendon in the hand. If you don’t get excellent physical therapy immediately after on the hand, it gets tight and you can’t use it. Sometimes you have to go back and start from scratch.
The people are really wonderful. It’s an entirely different culture, and it was good to be immersed. They spoke English better than I speak Arabic – I don’t speak Arabic at all. And generosity is a huge part of the culture. This wasn’t just an American or international plan to go in and be saviors. It was about joining with these surgeons who are there all the time, every day, to give them a hand in doing the numerous cases that continue to come in week after week and day after day.
What brought you to Newton?
We left New York after 9/11 mainly because it had changed. I had grown up there my entire life and it wasn’t that it wasn’t friendly anymore, but I think there was a lot of fear. You live all your life thinking you’re infallible and you aren’t. It was almost like a police state for awhile. I didn’t want to raise my family there, so we started looking elsewhere. My husband is an ophthalmologist and finding a place that needed us both was a challenge. We went to Elizabeth City in North Carolina and lived there for about six years. We liked it. It was very beautiful.
But the economic downturn hit there even earlier than everywhere else. People don’t think of plastic surgery when they’re trying to eat. So we started looking for another place that needed us both at the same time and Newton was searching, so we’ve been here since then.
Why did you leave dance?
As you get older – and old is 25 or 30 in dance – as you start hitting those numbers, things start to hurt more, and it’s more difficult to do that daily grind of practicing every day. So I started looking toward medicine and having a more steady job. I tried to get a job as a waitress (after dancing) but I was “overqualified,” so I said, “This is ridiculous. I’m going back to what I thought I would be when I was a child.”
Do dance and medicine have anything in common?
The biggest thing is they’re both artistic, especially plastic surgery. Surgery and dance require an awful lot of discipline. In the first few years of medical school, maybe it was because I was older, sitting down and studying for hours on end was not a problem for me like it was for some other kids in the class. You do what you have to do and when you get it done, then you can have fun.
What do you like most about your job? What keeps you going?
People often say you know you’re in the right profession when you finish the end of the day and instead of feeling exhausted, you feel exhilarated. That’s how I feel right out of the OR. I come out, and I’m bouncing. It’s invigorating to be a surgeon and to be a plastic surgeon.
What drew you to plastic surgery in particular?
When you’re in medical school, you rotate through all the sub-specialties. I knew I wanted to do surgery and I rotated through neurosurgery, vascular and plastic.
Neurosurgery was horrible. Vascular surgery was a lot of diabetic patients. People who are really sick all of the time. But plastic was a great surgery. Patients were happy, plus you don’t do the same surgery over and over and over again. You get to work on all parts of the body and every body is different. A tummy tuck on one person is completely different than someone else.