The Plastic Surgeon as a True Artist

The Journal News, try March 15, 2001

Dr. Roger SalisburyPlastic Surgeons are sometimes compared to artists. With Dr. Roger Salisbury, no comparison is necessary. Salisbury is the director of the nationally recognized E. Hank Longo Burn Center at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. But he is also making a name for himself as a painter of impressionistic oils and pastels, exhibiting at such venues as the Bridge Gallery in White Plains and the Flatiron Gallery in Peekskill, look and winning awards from the Rockport Art Association in Massachusetts, and the Pastel Society of America.

Moreover, he has published “New York Colors: An Impressionist Ode to the City,” a delightful selection of his pastel landscapes and cityscapes accompanied by literary reflections. Proceeds from the book benefit the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, which is scheduled to open in 2003. For Salisbury, art and science are not parallel pursuits but inextricably bound disciplines to be cultivated with equal passion. Or as he says: “I went into plastic surgery because I was an artist. I’m using my hands, using my artistic interests, to reach out and touch people.”

Salisbury, 60, is talking from his office at the burn center. It looks like a typical medical facility — at once sterile and crammed with files and furnishings. The one distinguishing feature is the presence of Salisbury’s artwork, which shimmers like a mirage. Salisbury has a soothing manner, with a soft voice and a dry sense of humor. As he shows his visitors through the ten-bed unit, he banters with the nurses on duty, a group of women who give as good as they get. The joking belies a serious calling and an equally serious team of professionals. “He expects a high standard of care, but he also listens to the staff,” says nurse Debbie Lombardi. “Some surgeons take credit for everything. But he’s not that way.”

The burn center sees about 400 patients a year and admits 200, Salisbury says. About 40 percent of the cases involve children. But statistics don’t tell the individual stories — abused youngsters, neglected senior citizens. Then there are the common household accidents with tragic outcomes. Sandra Ballengee was carrying a pot of water she had boiled for pasta in the kitchen of her Stamford, Conn., home, unaware that her toddler, Erin, was at her feet. She tripped, spilling the scalding water on Erin’s back. On this particular day, however, mother and daughter are both feeling better, and preparing for Erin to go home. “He’s an angel,” Ballengee says of Salisbury. “He definitely calmed me. And everyone here has been so sweet to her.” As Ballengee talks, Erin nestles shyly in her mother’s arms. When Salisbury approaches them, he places a hand gently on Erin’s head. “I feel very positive about what I do,” he says.

Salisbury’s artistic interests manifested themselves at an early age in his native Philadelphia. The child of Dr. Gregory B. Salisbury — a dentist who was also a gifted painter and a local celebrity — Salisbury began studying at the Philadelphia Museum Art School at age four. By the time he was a teen-ager — doing the things teen-agers do — he had won some national awards. But Salisbury’s parents, like most parents, wanted their son to have an education. So Salisbury earned a bachelor of arts degree from Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., and a medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. After graduating from Albert Einstein in 1966, he served internships and residencies at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Salisbury might never have become a plastic surgeon had he not wound up at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, patching up horrifically scarred GIs in the waning years of the Vietnam War. “The only way to make some sense out of it personally was to take what I learned in a very difficult time and use it,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could turn my back on what I learned … I wanted to devote my energies to burn patients.”

Salisbury performs other types of reconstructive surgery. But he always applies the principles he learned in such schools as the Art Students League in Manhattan. “When you have a person whose face has been burned and their mouth is a hole, you don’t just create a mouth,” he says. “You have to ask yourself how big should the mouth be.” He then demonstrates how the edges of the mouth line up with the pupils of the eyes.

Besides giving Salisbury an insight into symmetry and proportion,his lifelong interest in art has given him an unparalleled serenity. “Nothing relaxes me and gives me peace like painting,” he says. At home in Rye Brook, Salisbury looks relaxed indeed amid the things he savors — his library of art books; his studio with its paints, pastels and shaft of natural light; and Cleo, an Abyssinian who combines a feline’s curiosity, a canine’s friendliness and the Queen of the Nile’s presence.

Then there are the works that grace the airy, white rooms — masks culled from travels around the world; his father’s delicate watercolors of Venice; and of course, his own paintings. One of the best, “December 24, Outside the Plaza,” casts a mauve glow over the living room. In this Christmas Eve scene, the skeletal trees and horse-drawn carriages of Central Park sink into winter’s periwinkle-and-white haze.

In “The Winners: Yankees’ World Series,” a victory parade with its onlookers, flags and confetti becomes a colorful blur. Works such as these evoke the spirit of American Impressionism, a late 19th-century artistic movement — more muscular and realistic than its French counterpart — that was nurtured in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, CT, and is currently enjoying a revival in three area exhibits.

As much as painting relaxes Salisbury, he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s no Sunday-afternoon painter. Rather, he sees art as a second career, although, he adds, he is not as competitive as his wife. She is Dr. Judith C. Monteferrante, director of the department of nuclear cardiology in White Plains Hospital Center. (Salisbury has three children by a previous marriage — Ashley, a lawyer and web site designer; Gregory, a writer; and Michael, a builder.)

A vibrant woman, Monteferrante share her husband’s love of gardening and sailing, which they indulge at their home in Gloucester, Mass. But whereas he likes to sail for recreation, she sails in races. “Everything I do is intense,” she says.

They are the kind of high-powered couple whose accomplishments might make you emerald with envy if they didn’t have such a sense of humor about the way they throw themselves into everything. They’re more than happy to regale their guests with tales of their misadventures in gardening. Those misadventures must be a few, though. Their former home in Pleasantville was part of a national home and garden tour. And they once ran a landscape business called Doctors Perennial Garden Service. “Roger had his own pickup truck,” Monteferrante says. Imagine that: A doctor who makes house calls — for plants.

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