Creative Fire | Dr. Regina Nouhan: The Art of Plastic Surgery

Dr. Regina Nouhan at home in Kansas City. (photo by John Eck)

Kansas City plastic surgeon Dr. Regina Nouhan has a special rapport with visual art. She has served on the board of directors for the Kansas City Artists’ Coalition and Arts Alive KC and gives time and financial support to arts endeavors across the city.

Dr. Nouhan is inspired by the private art collection that she and her husband, architect John Eck, build together in their home. In a conversation we had in her study, it was clear that Nouhan’s affinity for art objects enhances not only the beauty of her home, but also the success of her medical practice.

Fifteen years studying science and 25 years as a surgeon have only strengthened Dr. Nouhan’s close ties to visual art. “I’m drawn to the emotions, the highs and the lows, that are communicated in artworks,” Nouhan says, looking around with pleasure at paintings, mixed media works and sculptures on her walls and bookshelves. The first emotional response is always to color, she says. “I have strong reactions to color, even the different shades of neutral tones. An emotional charge goes through me in response to it.” From color, Nouhan explains, her eye “moves to pattern and rhythm and texture . . .” where she finds those aha! moments of understanding an artist’s intention and effect. Seeing technical accomplishment, Dr. Nouhan can feel the focus and determination of the artist at work. “That purpose and persistence,” she says, inspire my work in the clinic.” In surgery, she often stays many hours at a time to craft subtle details.

In her home, Nouhan’s affinity for visual subtlety translates to carefully integrated tones and welcoming views. She says, “I have always noticed what can be changed in things that might make them more attractive,” and as she speaks, afternoon light moves over small groupings of objects arrayed on the shelves of her study: ceramic pots, prints and other artworks layered into still life settings. Each collection is an intriguing unity of hue and texture, not unlike the harmony of a beautiful face or hand.

Dr. Nouhan started medical school with an interest in child psychiatry, and she was surprised to find her passion in surgery. “Oh, my!” she remembers thinking, “you do something with your hands, and it makes something better!” Smiling, she holds up those hands. For me, they account for the mindfully crafted spaces of her home, but for countless patients, these hands restore the body’s form after an injury or answer the wish for a change in personal appearance.

“Just like an artist,” Nouhan says, “a plastic surgeon uses many techniques to achieve the best outcome. There’s never just one way to do it. If you go to 10 different surgeons for a certain result, you’ll find 10 slightly different procedures. We each know what works well in our own hands.” Nouhan points out that plastic surgeons have to be flexible in their approaches because each human body is unique, and its tissues respond uniquely. “The surgeon’s artistic eye,” she says, “is actually a honed skill for picking up on details, contours, pattern, shape and symmetry.” Some surgeries take longer than expected, and the healing process changes things in its own way. She adds, “It’s not as predictable as a science experiment.”

Of course, a difference between artist and plastic surgeon is that the doctor’s medium literally speaks to her. “Visual artists create to satisfy themselves,” Dr. Nouhan points out. “As a plastic surgeon, I create first and foremost for someone else.” Imagine a painting telling its painter the outcome it hopes to have and looking in the mirror when the work is done!

Dr. Nouhan says that her goal as a surgeon begins with the desires of her patient. While she might have to educate someone about what is realistic, she would never tell a person they need certain changes in appearance. “I don’t see my profession as a mission of making the world more beautiful. Everyone’s concept of beauty is different, and each person is a different creature. I would never presume to try to change anything about anyone unless they knew already that they wanted that change.”

Dr. Nouhan tells me that just as she craves a variety of art in her collection at home, she also likes the variety of needs called for in her practice. “I don’t have one favorite surgery. I love it that one day I’m doing a tummy tuck or an eyelid lift, the next day, breast reconstruction after cancer, then an interesting hand surgery . . . and art is like that, too. I count on that variety.” In and beyond our arts community, it is our fine fortune that Kansas City offers Dr. Regina Nouhan the variety she craves.

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