A journey from there to hair
Dr Greg Williams outlines his path to becoming a Plastic Surgeon—from Jamaica via Canada and ultimately to London to specialise in hair transplant surgery
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a blond French mother and an olive skinned Jamaican father of mixed White/Indian/Black ethnic background so I feel I embody the Jamaican national motto ‘Out of Many One People’.
I went to a primary school where I was considered to be financially privileged and light skinned and then to a boarding school in Toronto, Canada where I was considered the under-privileged dark skinned kid. This gave me an interesting perspective on socio-economic and racial issues from an early age.
I had decided by the time I was 11 years old to be a doctor so my academic direction was clearly focused and university followed at McGill in Montreal, Canada studying anatomy.
It was only in my teens that I realised how lucky I was to be from the Caribbean. As a child, I rarely went to the beach other than with my family for the annual summer holiday on the island’s north coast. At boarding school in Canada, and especially during winter, it became apparent that much of the rest of the world worked hard to afford the luxury of sun destination holidays, and I began to appreciate what had always been on my doorstep. Perhaps it was for this reason, or perhaps it was having been away from home for so long, that I was keen to set up my medical practice in Jamaica. I was also advised that, whilst it is easy to train in medicine in a third world country and practice in the first world, the reverse was not so true so I applied to, and was accepted at, the University of the West Indies to study medicine.
Six years later with a medical degree under my belt, the realities of practicing medicine where few can afford the price of basic medications caused me to change my mind, and I looked to emigrate somewhere that I could be the kind of white coat-wearing doctor I had imagined I would be.
A chance meeting with a British tourist couple who suggested I move to England and stay with them whilst I found my feet led me to London, and a series of fortunate coincidences landed me with a surgical rotation rarely offered to an outsider.
I had chosen plastic surgery as my preferred specialty during my medical school elective in Toronto when I was awed by the surgeon I was assigned to moulding an ear from a patient’s costal cartilage to treat a congenital microtia. Incidentally, I also met my wife through mutual friends whilst on this medical elective and I consider these two events to be the most pivotal turning points of my life. Once again, lady luck shined on me and I was offered a plastic surgery training rotation in London without having done any research. I was later told that the offer was made to me over better qualified candidates based on my bursting enthusiasm at interview. A good lesson for others who think the hill is too steep to climb.
Plastic surgery encompasses so much more than is commonly perceived by the public. In the NHS, it is much less about beauty than about reconstruction and my training encompassed managing hand, craniofacial and general trauma, cancer excision and reconstruction, congenital deformity management and much more. However it was burn surgery that caught my eye and in which I sub-specialised.
I went on to lead the Burn Centre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London and in fact, for many years, I was the only substantively appointed NHS Burns Consultant in London. I became the Clinical Director for Burns in London and the South East of England, and co-authored the UK national documents for Burn Major Incidents, Burn Advice to National Trauma Networks and Thresholds for Admission to Burn Services.
After reaching the pinnacle of my NHS career, I started thinking about a more relaxed way of life that did not entail getting up at 3am whilst on call, working long weekend shifts, and being away from my family on Christmas Day.
In my pre-Consultant training days I was fortunate enough to have been accepted on what was then, London’s only Aesthetic Training Fellowship. There, I assisted and learned from the best of the best, but I felt that if I was going to be good at facial aesthetics, breast surgery or body contouring I would have to dedicate more time than was available to me as a busy Burns Consultant so I did not pursue a career in aesthetic surgery. I fact, I have never given a botulinum toxin injection nor administered a dermal filler—rare for a Plastic Surgeon!
I was however, instructed on how to perform full thickness hair bearing skin grafts and pedicled hair-bearing flaps for eyebrow burn scar alopecia by my burn surgery mentors, the results of which seemed very rudimentary to me for the 21st century.
I researched where I thought the best hair transplant practitioners were and travelled to Brasil and North America to learn from them. For many years I believe I was the only doctor in the NHS performing follicular unit hair transplants. This skill was the same as that used to treat genetically-determined male and female pattern hair loss and I built up a respectable part-time private practice in this area.
It was therefore not a difficult step to move into full time private practice especially since the opportunity arose to join forces with like-minded doctors at the Farjo Hair Institute, who not only have the same high clinical standards but are also dedicated to research and education.
I often smile wryly when I think that one of the reasons I chose to leave the NHS was that I was weary of the politics and yet I have taken on many of the same leadership roles in the private sector. I have been the President of the British Association of Hair Restoration Surgery (BAHRS) since 2013 and represented the Association on the Health Education England Advisory Group developing the Qualification Requirements for Delivery of Cosmetic Procedures: Non-surgical Cosmetic Interventions and Hair Restoration Surgery.
I have taken a strong stance in the development of Clinical and Professional Standards for Hair Transplant Surgeons but there is much work still to be done around the development of Patient Related Outcome Measures and in data collection. This commitment has been recognised by the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery (ISHRS) and I have been asked to chair that Society’s Bylaws and Ethics Committee.
I was also very privileged to be awarded the Fellow status by the ISHRS which recognises senior hair transplant surgeons around the world. There are only three in the UK and currently less than 100 globally. The award recognises leaders in the field in terms of leadership, education and medical publication.
I have always felt that hair transplant surgery is different from those aesthetic procedures that aim to turn back the clock because not everyone loses hair as they get older. I think of it more as a medical disorder with a surgical treatment. For those who are unfortunate enough to have lost their hair through burns or trauma, hair restoration can lead to the regaining of lost confidence. The surgery can be expensive and unaffordable to some so I have worked along with my colleagues and the Katie Piper Foundation to establish a pro-bono partnership to offer hair restoration surgery for free to suitable and eligible patients.
I may no longer be saving lives but I know that I am still changing lives. As I look at where I am now, it has been a path with several forks in the road. I would not have imagined in the past that I would be doing what I am now but I remain professionally fulfilled and wake up every day knowing I am doing good in the world. What more can a man ask for and what better example can one set for one’s children?
Dr Greg Williams is a Plastic Surgeon and the lead Hair Transplant Surgeon at the Farjo Hair Institute’s London clinic W: farjo.com