CARLSBAD — At 89 years old, he was performing his final surgery in Vietnam on a patient suffering from a cleft palate.
And now, Dr. Mel Spira resides comfortably in La Costa Glen, but stays busy with a variety of activities including presentations to medical students and groups such as the Carlsbad Hi-Noon Rotary Club.
But Spira’s journey is one of man from humble roots to becoming one of the country’s top plastic surgeons, from reconstructive procedures from injuries or cosmetic.
“I did everything,” he said. “Plastic surgery, surgery comprising of all parts of the body and cosmetic surgery.”
His odyssey into surgeon began first as a career planned to be a dentist. At 93, Spira served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and used his service as a way to pay for dental school at Northwestern University in 1947.
But he soon realized, as a dentist and oral surgeon, he could not help people with more serious head and neck injuries. So he attended the Medical College of Georgia and surgery training at Duke University, and then went to Baylor University, where he became the head of the Division of Plastic Surgery for 20 years. He was also the former president of the Association of Plastic Surgeons.
He married Rita Spira (Silver) in 1952 and the couple was together for 61 years before she died in 2013. They two had two daughters, Mary Ann and Pam.
“I worked hard for about 20 years and ran the division,” Spira said. “I stepped down, but stayed on staff.
After Baylor, the Spiras moved to Snowmass, Colorado, five miles from Aspen, as his wife loved to ski. She spent more than 100 days per year on the slopes, so relocating to one of the world’s best skiing destinations made sense, Spira said.
However, he was still on staff at Baylor, but a greater calling came and Spira decided to help those in Third World countries with his expertise to fix deformities, birth defects and other issues requiring reconstructive and plastic surgery.
He dedicated nearly 20 years to performing surgery for people who could not otherwise afford such an expensive procedure. It was, Spira said, his way of giving back, especially since plastic surgery was a lucrative career.
His second act took him all over the globe, from India, Vietnam, South America, Africa and Central America.
He also wrote an autobiography, which includes the lessons he learned from his patients.
“They taught me about confidence, humility and gratitude,” Spira said. “In a way, it was payback for all the good. Plastic surgery has been very good to me.”
His career also saw him come in contact with some of the world’s most famous people, including the Sultan of Brunei, Pope John Paul II and former La Jolla resident and one of the seven original Mercury astronauts, Wally Schirra.