Sultan of Skin

Flesh insight from an esteemed St. Louis plastic surgeon

"It brought a tear to my eye when they took her away last year, but I had to give her up because C.B. and Rob wouldn't go places with me," Young recounts, referring to his medical partners, C.B. Boswell and Rob Centeno, both of whom use Botox and exercise regularly, believing slender figures are a key selling point in luring clients. Young, on the other hand, loves nothing more between surgeries than a double order of sauerkraut and wieners.

Says Mohart: "If I had to sum up my dad in one phrase, it would be: 'You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy.'"

Young was born to Southern Baptist tobacco farmers in Oneida, Kentucky. The family was poor and isolated, living fifteen miles from the nearest traffic light. "I wish I could take you back there," he says. "Everybody had a mule."

Leroy Young: national breast-implant expert.
Jennifer Silverberg
Leroy Young: national breast-implant expert.

An only child, Young passed the time hunting squirrels with his mutt, Soup, or pulling pranks with his BB gun. "One Saturday I shot the TV when Buffalo Junior and his Indian buddy were fighting bad guys," he recalls. Another day, "Granddad was standing between two buildings peeing, and I just couldn't pass it up. I shot him in the ass!"

On a lark, Young set off for medical school at the University of Kentucky, all the while believing he'd soon flunk out and hightail it back to the tobacco fields. Instead, he became so enraptured with anatomy and organic chemistry that he couldn't stay away from the campus. In his second year, he moved into the physicians' lounge of the teaching hospital.

"It was kind of like Vegas. It never closed," he recalls. "If I got bored studying, I'd go down to the ER. One of the doctors there taught me how to sew. He let me sew up drunks."

Seeing a breast augmentation early in his plastic-surgery rotation left quite an impression on Young. "I was wowed. In such a short time, you can have such an impact on somebody's body image, and your work is there for everyone to see. You can't hide any mistakes."

Though he hasn't acquired the stardom of Beverly Hills' Roberto Rey Jr. on the reality TV show Dr. 90210, Young is held in high regard among his peers. He recently became president of the Aesthetic Surgery and Research Foundation and is slated to take the helm of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in 2008.

His seventeen-page résumé cites an editorship at a prestigious medical journal and chairmanships of numerous national research committees, not to mention a dozen meritorious awards and advisory roles with the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, Young is now preparing to begin an FDA-funded study of lipodissolve — injections of enzymes purported to dissolve fat cells.

When thousands of women claimed their silicone-gel breast implants were causing sickness and cancer in the early 1990s, Young's research proved there was no correlation between silicone gel and autoimmune or connective-tissue diseases. It was his idea to establish the six-year-old North American Breast Implant Registry, an expansive tracking system of breast-augmentation patients.

"If you want to find out the latest on breast implants, he's your guy," says Al Aly, an Iowa City-based plastic surgeon.

Young publishes and lectures the world over. "Leroy will get up to give a talk and start by saying, 'Well, I don't know if I know what I'm talking about,'" observes Monte Eaves, a plastic surgeon from Charlotte, North Carolina. "But then he shows 800 slides. Not only does he know what he's talking about, he knows it better than everybody else."

Young came to St. Louis in 1977 for his residency at the invitation of Paul Weeks, his former instructor in Kentucky and then-chief of plastic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

As the first United States medical center to open a reconstructive surgery department in the 1940s, Wash. U./Barnes has enjoyed a storied reputation in the field. Young became a professor at the university in 1979, treating burn victims, congenital deformities and people disfigured by disease. Ten years later Young convinced Weeks to add an aesthetic-surgery component.

"I was really getting interested in breasts and genitalia," says Young, who has performed sex-change surgeries on hermaphroditic children and transsexuals. "I initially thought it was morally wrong to change somebody's gender. I thought, 'Gee, you know, you're tinkering with what God's done.' But then I'd talk to these people — they felt trapped, imprisoned — and I thought a compassionate God wouldn't want anybody to feel that way.

"One Friday we cut off this guy's genitals and made him a vagina, and I went up Saturday morning to make rounds and there was a sign on his door saying, 'It's a girl!'"

Young consulted patients during a two-year period of cross-dressing before performing any surgeries. "Sometimes I'd get confused," he recalls, on the verge of laughter.

"But the funniest was this guy who was pretty skinny and not very pretty as a woman. I start telling him the first surgical step was breast implants, and he stops me right there. He says: 'Doc, you know I don't have much money.' He says: 'I know lots of women with small breasts, but I don't know any that got a dick, so I want to start there.'

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