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PHYSICAL APPEARANCE SPEAKS ABOUT HIS OWN PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
by Janice Stensrude
published in Uptown Express May 1989
"People come to see me because they're unhappy with their lives. What they do is say that I'm unhappy with this jowl or this nose or this tit or whatever it is, and if you make it look like this, then my life will be transformed. Self-esteem is a terribly distressing disorder, and I think that the vast majority of disease that we see in medical offices across the country have to do with aspects of low self-esteem." Phillip B. Rothenberg, M.D., F.A.C.S., is a plastic surgeon, the profession made famous by such phenomena as Phyllis Diller's permanent eye liner and Raquel Welch's shapely, perpetually firm breasts.
People who come in about changes associated with aging, according to Rothenberg, are really dealing with the death issue. "Nobody really comes in wanting to look like their juvenile counterparts," he said, "they just don't want to look like they're approaching the end." Counseling is an integral part of Rothenberg's practice. "People can be very dense about making changes in their lives," he explained. "They don't snap to the idea that there's more to be offered here than a change in their eyelid or jowl or breast. But a lot of people do recognize that, and those people are very grateful patients. The gratitude works both ways, because when I get somebody who's really anxious to make changes and undergo transformation, they learn a lot about life and they teach me a lot about life."
His very first patient was an 18-year-old unwed mother who brought in her infant to have a "sixth digit" (extra finger) removed from his hand. It was a simple procedure that the young doctor performed readily, but he also talked to the mother about her disfigured lip.She was amazed that anything could be done about it. This, too, was a simple procedure—with two v-shaped incisions and a tuck, her view of herself radically changed. She reported that her brother had passed her on the street without recognizing her. "People didn't see me," she had told him, "they saw my lip."
Liposuction, a surgical method of removing fat, is described by Phil Rothenberg as "one of the worst operations ever foisted on the public." "It's a wonderful tool in very specific warranted areas, but we have this neurotic overfed overendowed public who thinks that the way to get over the effects of gluttony is to have their fat sucked out through a steel tube. My reluctance to offer that operation in my practice is because I don't want to be known as a fat sucker. I think that it's inappropriate for obese individuals to subject themselves to surgical treatments where they would be better served by nutritional counseling and behavior modification," the doctor declared.
Rothenberg's dimly lit waiting room has the atmosphere of a comfortable living room, and the staff conveys an easy friendliness that gives one the feeling of having dropped in to visit with friends. His offices include a state-of-the-art operating room with its own emergency power generator. Longer procedures are performed at the nearby Spring Branch Hospital, but Rothenberg prefers the controlled environment of his own space. His in-house operating room has windows that look out into greenery, and surgery is accompanied by peaceful, calming music.
Phil Rothenberg is among the growing number of medical professionals who subscribe to a method called holism. Holistic practitioners subscribe to the belief that human beings are a trinity of mind, body and spirit, and that illness in one of these areas causes, or perhaps indicates, illness in the other areas. Rothenberg, however, does not call it illness. He refers to it as dis-ease, not being at ease or in balance in one's life. Having the "mind of the healer," he states, means striving to bring the client to a unified whole, including some healing of the body, healing of the mind, and healing of the spirit. This goal, he admits, is achieved with less than half his patients. "We relate to each other as human beings, because if I relate to my patients as institutions, I am a technician. The great healers of history like St. Luke, Jesus, and Hippocrates weren't technicians. Their services were intensely personal, and what they taught was essentially what holistic healing is reaching today—the integration of high energy, very clean, natural diets, exercise, meditation, prayer, cleansing the mind and the body—and they healed people."
When he first began thinking this way, Phil Rothenberg felt very much alone, and he saw the task of making changes in the way medicine was practiced as gargantuan—maybe impossible. "But as my own level of consciousness and realization developed," he reported, "I suddenly started realizing that there were speakers, that there were organizations, physicians at the leading edge, well-educated scientists who were doing really incredible research and who were unimpaired by the type of training that we had in the Newtonian view of physics and the nature of reality. This is the age of quantum physics, and what the modern quantum physicist has shown us is that, in observing the behavior of matter, the consciousness of the observer can effectively alter the behavior of the matter. It has nothing to do with teaching it or physically interacting with it. Your will has a lot to do with how matter behaves. That's the very essence of what healing is about."
It was very difficult for Rothenberg to "come out of the closet" with his evolving thought about his role as a physician/healer. "It was with a great deal of fear," Rothenberg recounts, "that I had my present business card printed with the "Holistic Approach" printed on it." The only response he received was that some of his colleagues simply labeled it a marketing gimmick.
A well-spoken, thoughtful man, his account of his personal journey to now is no less interesting than his fond anecdotes of the personal transformation among his clients.
For the first 12 years of his life, Phil Rothenberg saw grass as a green carpet and trees as giant green lollipops. That year his teacher sent a note home suggesting that his eyes be tested.
"Leave your glasses alone!" He was deaf to the words as he popped them down his nose and back to his eyes, entranced with the contrast of blurred colors, then sharp images, excited about the discovery of sight.
Rothenberg barely squeaked through high school. College was not in his plans, but his father had a different idea. Phil was to take advantage of the opportunity he himself never had. Anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio could enroll in a state college, but, Rothenberg explained, the school didn't have to keep them.
"I went off to college without warm clothes because I didn't expect to be there when it got cold," he declared. But by the time the cold weather arrived, Rothenberg had become an instant scholar. And at the end of the semester he was second in his class. "It was a superrational illogical phenomenon," he explained simply. "I discovered I was capable of enjoying intellectual pursuits, particularly biological sciences. That was my first transformative experience after puberty."
Rothenberg made friends with a pre-medical student who had always wanted to be a doctor. "I discovered I was at least as smart as he was. The major difference was that he knew what he wanted and he was much better organized than I was. So I worked on these traits." Rothenberg found the first two years of college relatively easy, which built his skills at meeting a challenge.
Rothenberg became the nineteenth plastic surgeon in Houston and the first to office west of the Medical Center. "I knew very little about anything but medicine at that time. I was very competitive about it. I wanted to be the best." He worked at perfecting his technique, living the life of the sharply focused, stress-hungry achiever.
Rothenberg describes himself in 1981 as a "staunch atheist." "I had no sense of humility," he explained. "I knew people who had a deep and abiding faith in something greater than themselves, and I thought they were all fools." Nothing in his life could have prepared him for what followed. He described seeing a white light and hearing a voice speak through him, "and suddenly I had inner knowing." He tried to discuss it with friends and was accused of doing drugs, going off the deep end, being deranged. "I finally decided to just trust my own experience instead of going crazy," he said.
"I could see how my scientific training about objective observation and the nature of the way things worked on the outer physical world worked on the inner and that the consciousness behind matter worked the same way, but that it was of a higher order and a higher vibration, and that all things we see in matter are created in consciousness first. I just suddently woke up. I suddenly had an awareness of an order of being that I was hitherto unaware of."
At age 42 Rothenberg had acquired another pair of glasses, and his inner world came into focus. "I could see the universe had meaning. That it's orderly and everything is planned and we are truly loved and that nothing is what it appears to be."
The experience was so earth shaking that his entire way of thinking changed, but his lifestyle didn't, and in 1984 he became seriously ill with heart circulatory problems. Lying in Intensive Care, he pondered the events leading up to his predicament—his lifestyle, eating habits, the amount of stress he had in his life. Rothenberg closed his practice for four months following his recovery to learn to live without stress and, he said, learn what a stress addict he was.
"Between the time of my spiritual awakening and my personal experience with life-threatening illness," he said, "I really began understanding the nature of illness. If you know how you got sick, you know how to get well."
Plastic surgery is still a stressful occupation, but Rothenberg has taken steps to improve the environment for himself and for his patients. He encourages patients to call him by his first name and works to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust. He calls his approach multi-dimensional transformation.
"I'm on the Board of Directors of the Houston Center for Attitudinal Healing, a community center for support of families facing life-threatening and catastrophic illnesses. I was very active in that for a number of years. I applied the principles of attitudinal healing in my practice and found that patients who come to see me, who have nothing better to do in their lives than worry about what they are going to do for themselves next, are really served by having a resource place where they can go to give to others, and I've learned that the more you give the more you've got. Life is for giving."
"I have a clear idea what a gift it is to be able to serve people by being here, by having a skill that I can offer people that they come and teach me everything I need to know," he said, "and they pay me for the privilege."
One of his patients who had a facelift returned several years later. In her mid seventies, she reported that she had bladder cancer and did not expect to live much longer. "I've always wanted to have tits," she reportedly told him. "I'm in good enough hearlth now, and that's what I want." Rothenberg tried to discourage her, suggesting that at such a grave time she had more important things to think about. He asked her to give it more thought, and when she left, applied more thought to himself. "I prayed over it," Rothenberg remembered, "and decided if that was her last wish . . ." A year later the woman's niece called Rothenberg and said her aunt was in the hospital dying and wanted to see him. When he entered the room, the woman was lying in her hospital bed with her back to a host of long-faced mournful relatives. When he spoke, she turned over and beamed. "I'm so glad to see you," she said. She had called him to the hospital to tell him that she knew his decision to perform breast surgery on her had been a difficult one for him. "I just wanted you to know that you did the right thing," she said. "It's been the best year of my life."