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The Dissection of My Career Path to Plastic Surgery


David Cangello '94
David Cangello '94

My journey to becoming a plastic surgeon has been a winding road that has taken me from Hamilton to Manhattan. I knew from a young age that I wanted to become a physician and had a specific interest in surgery. Growing up in Upstate New York, I attended a public high school and it was there that I began to cultivate my interest in medicine. During my freshman year in high school, I took a zoology course and performed dissections on some of the animals of the region. Performing a meticulous surgical dissection came naturally to me and it drew me even more to the idea of surgery as a career.

With the goal of medicine in mind, I began studying at Hamilton in 1990. I had a fantastic time at Hamilton and became a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Through my fraternity, I made amazing friendships with my fraternity brothers. Having the new-found freedom that came with being at college and a great group of friends was not exactly conducive to classroom focus. Many times as an adult, I’ve thought, “I can’t believe I didn’t take advantage of all the academic opportunities that an amazing school like Hamilton had to offer. If only I could go back.” Serendipitously, during my junior year at Hamilton, I attended an event at the Career Center where I met an alumnus named Dr. William Wright and his colleague Dr. Barry Zirkin from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. They came to Hamilton to recruit students for their master’s program in the Division of Reproductive Biology. At the time, they were offering a master’s degree to students with an interest in “bench” science with an end goal of pursuing a research career as a Ph.D. They also promoted the idea of using the degree to improve one’s academic record and increase the chances of getting into medical school. I had an instant connection with Dr. Zirkin, and at the event he offered me his direct contact information in case I ever decided to apply to his program in the future.

Two years later, after graduation from Hamilton, I was waiting tables at a restaurant with my best friend from Hamilton. It wasn’t more than a few weeks into that job before I said to myself, “Wow, I’ve got to get my life together!” Getting into medical school at that point seemed like a huge challenge as my grades from Hamilton were marginal, or, let’s be honest, maybe slightly less than marginal by medical school standards. To stand any chance of getting accepted, I knew I would have to improve my academic record.

I happened to find Dr. Zirkin’s contact information and reached out to him, wondering if he would even remember who I was. Fortunately, he remembered and invited me to apply to the program and for a formal interview. Within a year, I moved to Baltimore and began the master’s program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. The program required both didactic coursework as well as bench science research, and culminated in a master’s thesis. It gave me the opportunity to show medical schools that I could earn “A’s” in the sciences such as biochemistry, molecular biology and immunology. In addition, because the research component of the program was so rigorous, I was able to demonstrate that I had serious intentions to make a career out of science and medicine.

After completing my master’s, I took a year off to study for the MCAT and apply to medical schools. During that year, I worked as a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in a lab studying the immunology of cardiac transplant graft rejection. I found this area fascinating and thought that I actually might pursue a career as a transplant surgeon. Thankfully, my hard work at Hopkins and studying for the MCAT paid off and I was accepted to medical school. I couldn’t have been more elated when I realized I was actually going to be able to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor.

In my final years of medical school, I applied for a residency in general surgery. I knew I wanted to be a surgeon that could save lives and take care of the sickest patients. I planned to further subspecialize in either surgical oncology, transplant or cardiothoracic surgery. I never even considered plastic surgery or orthopedic surgery because I thought in those fields, I would not learn about the complete medical and surgical care of the patient.

As a general surgery resident, I quickly realized that my passion was being in the operating room and performing surgery. Each dissection and repair of the human body was a form of art to me. My mentors praised me for my innate technical abilities in the operating room, which I attributed to my artistic talent. Since childhood, I had been drawing and sketching and had won awards for my artwork in grade school. At Hamilton, I had taken a few oil painting courses. Interestingly, those were the courses that actually stimulated me to pull “all nighters.” I would often stay in the studio painting overnight just to get a piece finished by its due date.

During my training, I began to see how my artistic ability complemented my technical ability in the operating room. I realized my love for surgery was a result of both a desire to help people and also the fact that I could be an artist in the operating room. With that epiphany, I opened my mind to the idea of training to become a plastic surgeon and dedicated everything to achieving that goal. After completing my general surgery residency, I matched in plastic surgery at Temple University School of Medicine.

When I finished my training, I moved to NYC with a plan of opening my own private practice. It is NOT easy to open a private practice as a physician in New York City, particularly in plastic surgery, as the city is super saturated with plastic surgeons and people from other specialties offering similar services. While I was in training, my mentors warned me that I would face this challenge, but it was my dream and I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.

I have now been in practice for approximately 10 years and, just one year ago, I completed construction of a brand new office equipped with a fully accredited operating room on Park Avenue and 60th Street. Within plastic surgery, I have a specific passion for rhinoplasty.

Twenty-five years after graduating from Hamilton, I have been able to help fellow alums who have come to me after seeing my work on social media. It has been incredibly rewarding to have recently performed rhinoplasties on other Hamiltonians and children of fellow Hamiltonians. I truly love what I do and can’t imagine having any other career. My only regret (with regard to Hamilton) is that I wish I had been a more serious student when I was there. That being said, I had four of the best years of my young life as a student there and I know that being a graduate of Hamilton opened a lot of doors for me. For that, and for my friendships and memories, I am forever grateful.

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