Spring 2012
Alumni Accent

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Benjamin Rodriguez, M.D.

Benjamin Rodriguez, M.D. '82, with one of his young patients in Cambodia. Photo courtesy Benjamin Rodriguez

Changing lives across the globe

By Anne McMillin, APR

Benjamin Rodriguez, M.D. '82, doesn't remember a singular "a-ha" moment when he realized his work as a plastic surgeon was changing lives.

Was it the man in Bolivia whose face was fused from burns who asked if he could simply drink water again? Or was it recognizing that the boy whose club foot he just corrected would allow the young man to be employable and enjoy a better measure of self-esteem? Or the child who didn't want to scare people with his burned face as he walked down the street?

Through his outreach work with Operation Smile and other organizations reaching across international boundaries to perform reconstructive surgery for patients in developing countries, Rodriguez learned that investing in his own "psychological income" was worth the sacrifices needed to spend time away from a successful plastic surgery practice and his own family to help others in need across the globe.

His colleagues during residency training in Texas introduced him to medical outreach opportunities and Rodriguez never looked back. Each year he donates his time traveling to developing and war-torn countries to operate on those who otherwise have no opportunities to have their physical deformities corrected.

Over the last five years, he has taught, assisted colleagues and performed surgery in China, Bolivia, India, Bolivia, Egypt, Jordan, Vietnam, Kenya, Cambodia, Ecuador, Russia and most recently, Peru.

His travel to developing countries putting his surgical skills to use escalated following a horrific accident in China which nearly killed him. Lying in a Chinese hospital bed back in 2007, Rodriguez had time to contemplate life.

"We all leave this Earth at some point so I wanted to be prepared. No more delaying goals," he said, explaining why he now completes several medical trips a year, spending up to three months away from his home and family in Las Vegas.

Rodriguez's service extends not only to regions outside the U.S., but within Nevada as well.

In 2005, then-Gov. Kenny Guinn appointed Rodriguez to serve as one of the six physician members of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners. Today, Rodriguez is president of that organization. Clark County Medical Society named him the Harold Feikes Memorial Physician of the Year for 2008 and Nevada Business magazine honored him as a Healthcare Hero for Southern Nevada in 2009. He earned a Jefferson Award in 2010 from the American Institutes of Public Service.

While his charitable work takes him overseas, Rodriguez made a deliberate decision to return to Nevada following his residency and fellowship training in the 1980s and early 1990s. Coming from a large family himself, Rodriguez wanted his children to grow up knowing their many cousins, something he didn't get to do. So after being gone for 20 years, he came back to his native state to raise his children under the umbrella of their extended family.

When asked why he chose medicine, this plastic surgeon, who helped pay his own medical school expenses by working as an auto mechanic on the professional drag racing circuit, said he had always been fascinated by the human body and how to fix it.

"I went into the field of plastic surgery because it was the last head-to-toe, inside and out, doctoring to be done," he explained.