J. Craig Merrell, MD, FACS
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon
Plastic Surgery Associates of Tidewater
In 1966, on a baseball diamond in Arlington, Virginia, 15-year old Craig Merrell took a hard swing at a curveball and missed. He didn’t know it, but that strike was about to change his life. “I broke my back,” he says, “and I had to have a spinal fusion. I was in the hospital for two weeks, flat on my back. When I recovered, I knew I wanted to become a physician to help people the way my doctors had helped me.”
When he shared that ambition with a school guidance counselor, she laughed. “It was a real wake up call,” he remembers. “She bluntly said that my grades were all over the place — not the sort of transcript top colleges and medical schools were looking for.” He left her office determined to always do his best – and to achieve his goal.
From that day on, he was an A student (only two B’s blemished his record), and he graduated summa cum laude from Wake Forest University in 1975. He accepted the invitation to study medicine at the University of Virginia, where he soon discovered his temperament was best suited to surgery. Next, as general surgery resident at the Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania, he heard about the pioneering work in the new field of microsurgery being done by Dr. Bernard O’Brien and Dr. Harry Buncke. “They were among the first to figure out the potential of using a microscope and sutures half the diameter of a human hair to do complex reconstruction,” he says. “The possibilities seemed limitless.”
Dr. Merrell became the first microsurgery fellow at Southern Illinois University (SIU), where he was trained by Dr. Robert C. Russell, a protégé of Dr. O’Brien. The farming community around Springfield gave Dr. Merrell frequent opportunities to restore patients with devastating injuries that required microsurgical intervention.
Following his fellowship, Dr. Merrell completed two years of plastic and reconstructive surgery residency at SIU before joining Plastic Surgery Specialists, Inc. in Norfolk in 1983. “I was here less than a week when a young shipyard worker lost four fingers below the knuckles to a sheet metal cutter,” he remembers. “It took me 24 straight hours to put them all back on.”
As the first Board-certified plastic surgeon with fellowship training in microsurgery, Dr. Merrell says the evolution to the delicate and incredibly demanding work of performing breast reconstruction was natural. “At the time, one in every nine or ten women would get breast cancer,” he says, “and many of them required mastectomies. A tremendous milestone was achieved in 1998 with the passage of the federal Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act that guaranteed a women’s right to insurance coverage for breast reconstruction.”
His practice naturally gravitated more and more to caring for amazing and courageous women who came seeking surgery in hopes that it might help them feel whole after the ordeal of a cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy and at times radiation therapy. The more he saw these women suffer the more he began to envision a “breast care center,” where women, regardless of their age or need, could receive the care they deserved. “I saw it as a continuum of care, an initiative that could save women’s lives,” he says, “and give their daughters hope as well. You don’t treat women for just a year or two; you must be committed to following them for life. I saw a whole team of doctors in many specialties working together to offer women the best.”
Unable to convince one local hospital to consider his vision, he decided to move his practice to Obici Hospital, which embraced the concept. After a lengthy and demanding process, in 2013, Obici became one of only a limited number of accredited breast care centers in the United States.
Just having a team and the latest equipment is not enough. Dr. Merrell’s compassion for the plight of breast cancer patients, coupled with an artist’s sensitivity and a microsurgeon’s skill, has led him to devote much of his practice to making women feel whole again. His patients come to him from near and far, and speak as highly of his genuine compassion as his skill. In the words of the patient pictured here, “The key to truly putting cancer behind me was reestablishing my confidence and the self-esteem that cancer robbed from me. Dr. Merrell understood that. He goes to extraordinary lengths to get things right.”
The foundation of Dr. Merrell’s life is his great faith in Jesus Christ. It gives him the unwavering desire to care not only for these women, but to serve others throughout the world as well. “I believe firmly in the Savior’s doctrine that when you focus on yourself you lose yourself, but when you lose yourself in serving others, you find yourself.”
Dr. Merrell knows this is a true principle through church missionary service, medical missions, and his work in Hampton Roads. He has been on more than two dozen mission trips with Operation Smile, often accompanied by his wife and one or more of their eight children. Focusing on performing and especially teaching microsurgery to physicians in countries across the globe allows them to also care for children, women and men who are suffering. “These are all children of a loving God,” he says. “It is my privilege to serve them.”