One-on-One: Branko Bojovic '98, MD

Q: Why did you choose to become a surgeon?

A: The profession requires a lot of attention to detail and being very technically proficient and sharp, and these are things that always interested me. I’ve also always been interested in working with my hands.

I chose plastic surgery, in particular, because it’s a field where you are really never limited by an organ system or an anatomic area. One day I might operate on the head, the next day on the abdomen and the next, the lower extremities. One day I may be operating on an adult, the next day on a child. It’s fascinating to me to be able to have that level of comfort with the entire human body.

Q: How many other facial transplants had been performed, prior to the one in which you participated?

A: There had been 22 other facial transplants performed in the world. UMMC was only the third institution in the United States to perform one at the time (March 2012).

Q: Although you practiced in advance to condition yourself for the duration of the surgery, was that really enough to get you through?

A: Many of us routinely work more than 80 hours a week so it wasn’t something completely foreign. But there’s also a certain level of adrenaline that is ever present and you hit this huge high and sort of ‘ride the wave’ the whole time until the procedure is over, the patient is safe and out of immediate danger. Then you crash and burn.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the 36 hour surgery?

A: The hardest part was that ‘point of no return.’ You know then that you can’t stop or turn back. That ‘point of no return’ occurred about mid-way through the operation. At that point, we knew we took the leap out of the airplane but that we also packed our parachute properly.

Q: Was there anything that occurred during or after the surgery that was unexpected or that surprised the surgical team?

A: Richard Norris was actually able to smell or start to re-smell almost immediately after the operation. We don’t understand exactly why. His original sense of smell was probably always intact but blocked because of the amount of scar tissue he had. The function of us moving his whole face probably opened up those areas of blockage, so when we transferred the new face onto him, he was breathing through his new nose and new mouth, and those signals were being sent to the appropriate centers in his brain.

Q: The story of Richard Norris’ facial transplant made international news. One Serbian news outlet, in particular, did a story on just you. Why is that?

A: I was born in the United States but I am Serbian, and my parents always made sure that I knew my cultural background and that I knew the language. I speak the Serbian language. I visit Serbia almost on a yearly basis. I have family there: cousins, aunts and uncles.

I was surprised when the news outlets there reached out to me.  To them, it didn’t matter so much that I wasn’t born in Serbia. Their interest was more ‘here is someone from our same cultural background who was able to be successful.’ They use stories like this very often as a motivating tool for the young people in Serbia, who are looking for role models. I was obviously flattered.