Past President, Magee-Rosenblum Plastic Surgery; Past Chief of Plastic Surgery and Director, Cranofacial Center, Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters; Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Operation Smile Inc.
As the second of 12 children raised by a general practice physician, Bill Magee grew accustomed to both chaos and certainty. The chaos part is obvious – and probably why Magee’s father took him and his siblings on house calls to give his mother a small break.
The certainty was about medicine’s power to change lives. His father had an office at their home in Fort Lee, N.J., and lines of patients would grow outside as their doctor took time to comfort, educate and hopefully heal each of them. After church on Sundays, his dad would patiently answer questions from everyone who approached him.
Magee can’t say he knew he wanted to be a doctor immediately because, by his own admission, he wasn’t much of a student. But when he did opt to go into healthcare – a journey that would include dental and medical school, a specialty in pediatric reconstructive plastic surgery, and a charitable organization that has changed hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide – he knew why.
“That human aspect of medicine is always what has appealed to me, more than the scientific part,” Magee says. “We all need to love and be loved. In medicine, you have such a unique opportunity to show people love every day. You can take on their problems, relieve their anxieties, give them reassuring touches and tell them they’re beautiful.”
Magee, 73, has spent almost his entire career in reconstructive plastic surgery, rather than cosmetic. Since 2000, he has worked exclusively with children, repairing cleft lips and palates and major and minor craniofacial anomalies. In addition to his more than 40 years of service at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, Magee was President of Magee-Rosenblum Plastic Surgery in Norfolk.
In 1982, he co-founded Operation Smile with his wife and high school sweetheart, Kathy, a nurse. The nonprofit medical service organization, based in Virginia Beach, now has offices in 60 countries with more than 5,000 medical volunteers; it has provided free surgeries to 400,000-plus children with facial deformities. Most are from impoverished backgrounds and have endured years of teasing and exclusion due to their appearance.
Magee also has brought about 150 foreign children with extremely complex facial deformities to CHKD, where he was Chief of Plastic Surgery from 1982 to 2004 and Director of its Craniofacial Center until his retirement in January. If a child or family ever needed a place to stay, Magee would move his own five kids onto floor mattresses to free up their beds. “It was a great opportunity not only to help kids who were suffering but to ground my own children, who grew up in comfort,” he notes. He also gave patients his cell or home phone number so they could always reach him.
Magee graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland and earned a dental degree from the University of Maryland, followed by a medical degree from George Washington University. He trained in maxillofacial surgery during an externship in Zurich, Switzerland, before completing general surgery residencies at the University of Virginia and Norfolk General Hospital, a plastic surgery residency at Eastern Virginia Graduate School of Medicine, and a plastic surgery fellowship as a Fulbright Scholar in Paris, France. In addition, he has done short-term observational studies in Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and New York City. He has been Board certified in Plastic Surgery since 1979.
A passionate educator, Magee also has been active in teaching and publishing. He has trained doctors from around the world, as well as countless fellows through Eastern Virginia Medical School as an Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery. Patients have come from across the United States, too, regardless of their ability to pay. In fact, he estimates he handled about a quarter of his cases for free.
Magee retired from local practice this year, although he still logs 60 to 80 hours a week with Operation Smile. “It was tough to tell families that I was leaving, but I knew it was time,” he says. “There were a lot of hugs and tears.” Operation Smile organizes hundreds of trips annually and, to pass on a service ethos, now incorporates middle and high school students. Magee’s oldest child went on its very first mission, to the Philippines in 1982, when she was 13; all his kids since have traveled with the group. One of his sons later adopted a girl from Vietnam – a country where volunteerism has improved overall relationships with America – as one of his 14 grandkids.
“These students work 14 to 16 hour days and come back completely different people,” Magee notes. “Very quickly, they don’t see deformities – they see children. And for some of those kids, it’s the first time anyone has looked at them as ‘normal.’” Magee is quick to credit CHKD; his former partner, Richard S. Rosenblum, MD; Operation Smile staff and volunteers; and his wife and family for supporting his work. “I could not have done any of this on my own,” he stresses.
Throughout his career, Magee has embraced the detail-oriented aspect of reconstructive surgery, sharing that he has a long-time interest in construction and considered a career as an electrician as a teenager. So he’s excited about new, highly durable bone replacement materials; more precise, three-dimensional scanning equipment; and pre-formed polyethylene implants, which have improved cosmetic results and reduced the risk of surgical complications. “It’s dramatic, how they fit so exactly and snap right into place,” Magee marvels.
But the heart of medicine is always foremost in his mind: “My work is incredibly rewarding. I will continue as long as I feel I can add a benefit to these children’s lives.”