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Posted July 25, 2013
Michael Gallant, M.D. Receives American Academy of Pediatrics Award

Dr. Michael GallantMichael Gallant, M.D., enrolled in Yale University Medical School fully intending to become a psychiatrist. But that was before he went through Yale's general surgery program, working with doctors he liked and respected enormously - and developing a passion for the specialty of plastic surgery.

"The thought of fixing birth defects - that was always the thing ever since that first year of medical school," he recalls. "Wow. It's still great."

Now the great work he has done in his career of 30-plus years, including the past five on the staff of All Children's Hospital, has been honored with the Philip O. Lichtblau Award from the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics - making Dr. Gallant the first plastic surgeon and first ACH physician to receive the recognition.

The award, presented in late June at the Don CeSar Resort, is given annually to a children's surgeon who has contributed significantly, either regionally or statewide, to the Children's Medical Services Program. It celebrates the spirit of Dr. Lichtblau, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who served as a ship's surgeon in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He did his job without  formal training or the benefit of a residency, due to the urgency of the times, and once even performed an appendectomy on board a small ship while being directed over a radio by a surgeon who was airborne.

After the War, Dr. Lichtblau eventually practiced at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and then relocated to West Palm Beach, always known for providing care to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. He was hailed as a social innovator who had the first non-segregated office practice in Palm Beach County in the early 1950s, caring for the poor and wealthy with the same outstanding attention and expertise until his death in 2001.

For Dr. Gallant, who now treats patients at All Children's new Cleft Palate and Craniofacial Center, the honor underscored the values and work he has embraced for so long.

"It's validation, that's all," he said. "You have to realize I have this incredible job where most weeks somebody says something to me that's incredible. And I know the value of that. Nothing feels like that in professional life. Yesterday I did a cleft lip repair and the father was crying for joy, and he took me aside and said some really lovely things. Those kind of moments mean so much."

Here are some other career reflections from Dr. Gallant in the wake of his award and its meaning:

On Dr. Lichtblau: "He was the same tradition that I was a part of and that I saw myself in: the tradition of the private practitioner who makes a living in his private practice so he can take care of kids. In my field, there were many outstanding people who did that. And here's a man, Dr. Lichtblau, who was gutsy enough to be on a ship and operate on people without a residency. It's scary enough when you've had the residency. But he had the courage to do that and then come back and become a terrific doctor."

On his greatest influence: "My hero was a guy named Mike Hogan, a doctor in New York City. He was a private practice physician who made many contributions. For instance, the operation that I do for cleft palate kids, who have speech problems secondarily, is one he developed. He was in private practice and one of the finest pediatric plastic surgeons in the world. So that's my tradition."

On his choice of a profession: "I remembered that right before I left medical school, one of the professors whom I hadn't spoken to in a while was shocked to hear I was becoming a surgeon. He said, 'You don't look like a surgeon; you look like a pediatrician. Are you sure you're making the right decision?' But people are made of parts, and there's absolutely a part of me that's a surgeon. It was just a gut feeling. I loved it. And it just so happened that the place I chose to go to medical school had a bunch of surgeons who were fine people. Of all the faculty members at Yale, they were the ones who were most involved in patient care.

The first week I was on rotation, we had a patient who was in really bad shape and the kindness the staff showed this patient in changing his dressings was remarkable. There's something very special about cleaning somebody up. What a human being does for another human being. It's about comfort. It's about dignity. And it's about decency. I was hooked."

On being both a Julliard-trained pianist and surgeon: "I had this very intense musical education. And especially for young children, piano teaching is all about technique. And here was a specialty as a plastic surgeon where technique really counted."

On whether he ever considered a music career:  "Never. My parents were school teachers, very bookish people. My father, in addition to being an English teacher, was a wonderful musician. Part of my mother's family was on the faculty at Julliard. My mother's idea was that I would learn the piano so that when I became a doctor, I could play after I got home from work and relax, and invite other doctors over to play chamber music. But the truth is, surgeons come home and they go to sleep. Instead, I'm the guy who plays the piano in the lobby as people are coming in and out of the cafeteria, which I really, really love."