Top Docs Q&A: Elof Eriksson

Eriksson is collaborating with the military to develop a new treatment for burn and trauma victims.

This post is part of our Top Docs Q&A series where we ask a physician who was selected as one of our Top Docs questions about their field, life as a doctor, and practicing in the Greater Boston area.

Name: Elof K. Eriksson

Hospital Affiliations: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Title: Chief of Plastic Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Joseph E. Murray Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Field: Surgery

Specialty: Plastic Surgery

Elof Eriksson is a plastic surgeon who specializes in both cosmetic and reconstructive procedures. In collaboration with the military, Eriksson is developing a new facial restoration technique to treat burn and trauma victims.

Why did you choose to specialize in plastic surgery?

I had done about three years of general surgery training when I was first exposed to plastic surgery. I found the specialty exciting, innovative, technically demanding, and forward-moving with various innovations.

What do you like most about the field?

I like it all. I think it is the innovative part that is the most fun. There have been a huge number of changes.

In the time you’ve been practicing, how have you seen the field change?

I have seen the development of microsurgery from its inception to now being an everyday procedure. Craniofacial surgery has evolved during this period as well as transplant surgery, particularly face and arm transplants.

What are the latest advancements in the field?

Our team has done six face transplants of the total eight that have been done in the U.S. to date, and that is brand new. We did the last one just a few months ago and we are quite proud of that. I think everybody agrees that is the latest development or innovation in plastic surgery.

What is your hope for the future of plastic surgery?

I hope that we can keep innovating for the purpose of providing better treatment to our patients.

You are working with the military to develop a new method of treating facial injuries. What can you tell me about it?

We are collaborating with the military in San Antonio, and more specifically the people who are involved in taking care of the facial trauma and burn patients. We are currently working together on a project that goes by the acronym reFACE, which stands for Restoration of the Functional Aesthetic Craniofacial Envelope. We are trying to put together all the latest techniques in the treatment of these facial injuries in order to protect, preserve, restore, and try to heal [the face] with as little scarring as possible.

How many service members need this kind of treatment?

The numbers go up and down with the various military campaigns that all soldiers are involved in, but we are talking about thousands of patients all together. Burns are very common nowadays because the IEDs, the improvised explosive devices, not only tend to cause blast injuries to the face but also burns. Then, there are other burn injuries where soldiers get somehow burned in equipment, house, or gasoline fires. There are a number of very flammable materials that they are close to all the time.

How does this technique work?

We would enclose not only the face but the entire head and often the neck in a device that would not only protect [the injured area] but also allow delivery of the various treatments that would reduce the extent of injury, reduce the pain, and reduce if not eliminate the development of infections. This would help provide the best possible environment for regeneration of the skin with or without transplantation. It allows us to apply the most effective, most modern treatments to the face. We haven’t really attempted to put this together for treatment of the face before. It’s still in the testing phase, but we have used the same treatment modalities elsewhere in the body.

What attracted you to this project?

I think the best stimulation to continue with difficult research is to be repeatedly exposed to patients with severe problems for which we might be able to improve treatment. The collaboration with the military has been ongoing for many years. I have been exposed to that in addition to all the civilian trauma patients we often see with very serious injuries that disfigure individuals for life. We are sometimes frustrated by the limitations of the methods that we currently have when we treat these patients early on.

What is your hope for the project?

If you look at the numbers, there are many more civilian injuries in this area overall than there are in the military currently. We hope that even though the military is helping us to develop this, the benefit will go not only to injured soldiers but also to trauma victims in the civilian population.