Buthainah Al-Shunnar, the UAE’s first female Plastic Surgeon, discusses her passion for helping women not just physically but mentally as well.
As the first female Emirati plastic surgeon, Dr Buthainah Al-Shunnar opened a whole new world of possibilities for women in the UAE who may have found it difficult to express their wishes to a man. After opening her own clinic Al Shunnar Plastic Surgery in Dubai, Al-Shunnar has made it her mission to remove the taboo surrounding plastic surgery and provide life-changing solutions for women. She specialises in breast cancer reconstruction, helping women who are recovering from the disease to get their bodies and their confidence back. She also has extensive experience in body contouring, aesthetic facial surgery, hand surgery and microsurgery, as well as nonsurgical anti-ageing procedures such as Botox, derma fillers and Platelet-rich plasma (PRP).
After graduating medical college with Honors from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland in 1991, Dr Al Shunnar received her five years of general surgery training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and George Washington University Hospital in Washington D.C., where she was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honour society. She then completed her Plastic Surgery Training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She then spent three years in York, Pennsylvania as a Consultant Plastic Surgeon in private practice, also covering a major trauma centre for its reconstructive needs, learning about the positive impact plastic surgery can have on the mind as well as the body. In 2005 she returned to Dubai and set up her own clinic. Al-Shunnar’s passion is giving back hope and femininity through breast reconstruction procedures for those facing breast cancer as well as body contouring. She has always been at the forefront to adopt new and innovative trends and has published numerous articles in her field. Her work has been presented at national and international plastic surgery conferences. Here, we discover more about her work, her passion and her vision.
Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to take the career path you did?
I was born into a family of doctors including my parents so we discussed medical issues from a very young age and ultimately, I felt comfortable in a medical environment. It was natural for me to gravitate towards medicine. In those days plastic surgery wasn’t a popular field but it was where my true passion was. For me, it is a field that incorporates art and science. I love to see the aesthetic transformations impact lives and I find this both inspiring and fascinating.
We are truly inspired by your story to help women who have had breast cancer – can you tell us a little about this and why this is a subject so dear to your heart?
Plastic surgery can be life-changing especially when dealing with what is considered the essence of womanhood. There was no real incident or story that directed me to this but I can say that I am always touched to be a part of the journey that women with breast cancer take and privileged to help with their recovery and self-confidence.
How do you think what you are doing is helping to remove the stigma surrounding breast cancer in the region and the UAE specifically?
Knowing there is a choice to wake up from surgery with a new breast after the affected breast was removed alleviates a lot of anxieties and somehow introduces a positive spin. I believe awareness is key and am so proud of women nowadays sharing their stories on social media and creating WhatsApp groups where they can share their experiences and feel that they are not alone. One of my patients said, “breast cancer does not define me”. And another quoted: “I was sick but I am not sick anymore and am looking forward to the years to come”. I find these statements so powerful and empowering. These women empower each other!
Tell us about your approach to Plastic Surgery in general and the benefits that it can have?
Where do I start?! I view plastic surgery very differently. I view it as a tool to enhance lives and sometimes less is more. Plastic surgery is a double-edged sword. It is important to know each patient wants and to manage their expectations. It is an intricate web of art, science and psychology. The benefits can be physical such as alleviating shoulder and back pain after breast reduction to aesthetic as we all know and ultimately psychological, where it can truly be life-changing and enhance one’s life, relationships and outlook.
Can you tell us a little about the psychological aspect of surgery? What are some of the changes you see in your patients on a confidence level?
Honestly, reframing perspectives is very important. That is why we chose it to be our brand essence. When someone feels good about themselves, it makes a world of difference in their confidence and self-esteem level. I see great changes not only physically but psychologically in almost all my patients.
Can you share any new techniques and technologies that you are particularly excited about.?
There has been an explosion of technology recently and technology is an ever-evolving and remarkable tool. But in the end what counts are the surgeons’ hands, eyes, skills and experience.
You were the first female Emirati Plastic Surgeon – what does it mean to you to be a woman working in this field?
Honestly, when it comes to work I never really looked at myself as a woman or otherwise… but more as a surgeon. My mother was the first Emirati female gynaecologist and she is my role model. She truly worked from her heart and dedicated her life to the women here in the UAE. In her career, she did over 18,000 newborn deliveries. I am so proud of her achievements and dedication to her profession. She had a vocation and a purpose; it wasn’t only her job.
In the UAE, being a woman has brought me many blessings as I find women are more comfortable discussing their issues with a female surgeon and opening up to their vulnerabilities and their dreams. I am a surgeon but also a mother and homemaker so the true challenge is this balance. I hope someday I can inspire my children as my parents inspired me.
What were some of the challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
I was blessed to be brought up in Dubai. We were very protected. So, leaving to go to medical school at the age of 17 was truly a culture shock. The bigger shock was going to the US after medical school for my surgical residency as Johns Hopkins training was very rigorous and tough. It was also very character building. It taught me perseverance and grit. Working in a male-dominated field, somehow one had to prove oneself, that was my test. In 2005 I set up my clinic and this was a very steep learning curve as being an entrepreneur requires a very different skill set to being a doctor. I am still learning and evolving.
What is something you would like to achieve that you haven’t yet?
Art. Painting. Self-discovery is a fascinating journey. I am not sure one ever achieves this fully and it is a constant work in progress. Let’s see where life takes me.
What is the message that you are trying to share about plastic surgery in the region?
Plastic Surgery is a tool that should be used wisely. The risks and benefits in everything we do are always weighed. Be careful when following trends especially extreme trends as they change with time and ultimately, it is important to be you.
This month we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UAE, what does this occasion mean to you?
You know, it is phenomenal to have seen this country blossom and transform. I feel humbled and proud to be a daughter of the UAE. To me, this year highlights growth, tolerance and love.
What is a message that you would send to your country on this occasion?
Thank you, always grateful and always humbled.
What is the fondest memory of the UAE from your childhood?
I remember when Dubai World Trade Center (the first skyscraper) was built and how excited we all were, you could see it from everywhere in Dubai and if one was ever lost we just drove towards it. Life was simple!
How will you be celebrating the 50th anniversary?
With my family and parents celebrating at home and remembering the last 50 years.
What do you think the UAE has that no other country possesses?
The UAE is forward-thinking while maintaining its culture and a mindset of infinite possibilities. This is exhilarating and one cannot but be pulled into its magic. I find beauty everywhere and I love the fact that it embraces people from all ethnic backgrounds like its own! The UAE’s leadership believes in equality and forward-thinking which has and will lead us towards the next remarkable 50 years, Inshalla!
Where would you like to see the UAE in another 50 years?
I would like to see it continue to grow and transform yet still stay true to its culture. Being pioneers in fields that matter to humanity because we have so much potential and endless possibilities to explore especially in finding sustainable solutions to preserve and protect our Earth.