by M. Diane McCormick
World-Renowned, Harrisburg-based Plastic Surgeon Dr. David Leber Retires, Leaving a Legacy of Giving Through 35 Mission Trips
Dr. David Leber has been on 35 overseas mission trips, rebuilding cleft palates and malformed ears. A board in his office shows before-and-after photos, plus a list of the countries where he’s been – Ecuador, Honduras, India, Iran, Philippines, Thailand.
“And I also now have to add to that Nepal,” he says.
Though the list of countries Leber has visited is long, his list of accomplishments is longer – world-renowned plastic surgeon,
teacher, published medical illustrator, award-winning sculptor,
Army surgeon, championship tennis player, avid bird watcher. He has also been to five continents, including Antarctica – twice.
“I have a frog named for me from Cuba,” Leber says.
All this from what might be called headquarters – the modest Front Street office of Leber & Banducci Plastic Surgery, Ltd., Harrisburg.
At the end of December, he vacated that space. He is 75, feeling the effects on his back and his thumb of years of standing over operating tables, so he has retired. Though he will stay involved in teaching and could consider future mission trips, he will no longer conduct surgeries.
Retirement marks the end of a long career devoted, largely, to plastic surgery in Harrisburg. Leber was born in York County’s Peach Bottom Township, “before there was a reactor.” The family moved around Pennsylvania with his minister father. By senior year of high school, he knew he wanted to be a doctor. At Temple University Medical School, in a newly formed Department of Plastic Surgery, he witnessed surgeries on hands and cleft palates.
“I was hooked,” he says. “Plastic surgery is a lot of detailed procedures. Cleft lips and cleft palates
taking care of kids. That’s something that changes their lives for the rest of their lives.”
In those years, the military was drafting doctors right out of medical school for assignment to Vietnam. Leber signed up for the Army, undergoing an internship at a San Francisco Army hospital, and then went “straight to Vietnam for a year as
doctor with the 1st Infantry.”
“War is a waste of money and mankind,” he says now. “It doesn’t solve a lot of problems, but I came out of it without any scars.”
After Army service, Leber supervised a San Francisco emergency room and then was invited back to Temple for his residency. He would become acting chairman of his department, but he didn’t see himself staying in academic medicine. A plastic surgery practice in Harrisburg had an opening. Medical school classmates had landed in Harrisburg and told Leber it was “a great place to live.”
It was 1978, and Leber brought to Harrisburg more training in hand surgery than any doctor in the area. He was the first doctor to use subcuticular stitches, which left no stitch marks on the patient. His cleft-palate surgeries included repairs
abnormally shaped jaws.
At one birth in 600, cleft palate is more common in the U.S. than many realize. Children born with cleft palate can face as many as five surgeries on the mouth, lips, nose
jaws from the time they’re 3 months old until their teenage years.
In underdeveloped countries, cleft palate is even more common and often caused by a vitamin B deficiency. Though treatment in the U.S. is “almost automatic,” it is a rarity in much of the rest of the world, where doctors and facilities are scarce, says Leber. The stigma of cleft palate can even keep children from attending school.
Leber started performing mission surgery when his friend, Dr. Veneranda Alvear, an anesthesiologist, approached him about performing cleft-palate surgery for the Harrisburg-based World Surgical Foundation, founded by her husband, Dr. Domingo Alvear.
An overseas mission trip can involve conducting surgery on dozens of children. “There were some trips in the Philippines I did 50 lip repairs in five days,” says Leber. The surgical team takes its own equipment, and they usually can set up in “some sort of a hospital building,” but Leber has worked in operating rooms with “a spigot and a sink. We’ve used a litter for an operating bed and made the best of what we had.”
On mission trips, Leber often performs in one surgery what usually requires three. The travel and preparation are difficult, and the work is exhausting, but the patients “are so grateful. Most of them have never seen a doctor.” The gratitude makes it worthwhile.
“That’s what makes you want to go back,” he says.
Leber also reconstructs ears on patients overseas and at home. Some are born without fully formed ears. Others have lost an ear to a car crash or a machete. Few surgeons have the expertise to rebuild ears, and Leber teaches the art to medical students at Penn State Hershey and to doctors worldwide through the ReSurge Global Training Program, a skill-building program for reconstructive surgeons worldwide.
To Leber, ear reconstruction, and all plastic
is an art, which might explain his attraction to the field. As a child, Leber was fascinated with the natural world, wondering why flies need six feet or why robins don’t soar as high as they possibly can. He started drawing what he saw. For five summers in college, he drew specimens – “amphibians, reptiles, birds, butterflies” – for a biologist in Cuba and, when Americans were forced out of the country, in the West Indies. That’s how a tree frog came to be named
Leberi. A lizard subspecies also bears his name. So does a blind snake.
As a medical student, Leber’s illustrations won medical-art contests. His illustrations for the hand and plastic surgery chapters of a textbook written by his department chief led to an offer of a full-time illustration job with a pharmaceutical company. He turned it down. “I enjoy doing art, but not under pressure,” he says.
Not that art has left him. He takes classes every Monday at the Art Center School and Galleries of Mechanicsburg. Every member of his staff has received a painting for Christmas every year. His duck decoy carvings have won first place in sportsmen’s shows. His artistic eye led him to ear reconstruction in the first place, when he watched fellow medical students struggling to carve rib cartilage into ear frameworks and realized immediately that, as in sculpture, the surgeon should cut away “the stuff you don’t need and then you do the details.”
Art helps a plastic surgeon visualize the job ahead, says Leber.
“I’m familiar with the third dimension,” he says. “As you turn something around, you get a different perspective. As a plastic surgeon, to have some artistic background is a major plus.”
Tracking and capturing the natural world in watercolors, pastels, sculpture
Leber. The avid
has seen 3,400 different species in searches that have taken him to “places you would never go, like Bhutan, New Guinea, places in India. Nepal. South America. Antarctica.”
He has also seen finches in the Galapagos Islands. In February 2015, he went to New Zealand because “the kiwi doesn’t live anywhere else.”
And while bird-watching tours offer scenery, mission trips have offered cultural immersion, living among residents and eating their food. Mission trips with another group, the Harrisburg-based Operation Medical, have taken him to India, a place he “tremendously enjoyed.”
Worldwide, he has been awed by “the sense that you can be terribly poor and not have much of anything but be happy.”
“Kids are laughing, having a good time, but they don’t have anything,” he says. “A toy may be a stick and some kind of metal hoop. Or they’re playing with some kind of ball made with something wrapped up with string. They seem to enjoy life better than we do, with all our responsibilities and problems.”
Leber has two sons and an 11-year-old grandson. As he contemplated retirement, in one of his last days in the office with picture windows overlooking the Susquehanna River (he has seen bald eagles fly by), he rattled off his plans. He will continue teaching. He collects stamps. He plays tennis year-round and was anticipating his spot playing in the USTA nationals in Phoenix on the 60-and-over team in April. He started golfing in recent years.
“It’s frustrating,” he says, “but I like it. It takes you to some beautiful places.”
He figures that his impact on the Harrisburg area is evident in the “letters and cards from people saying I saved their lives or changed their lives.” The cards might come from patients who had “something simple,” like breast reduction, or they could be from grateful parents of cleft-palate patients.
“I get pictures when their kids graduate from high school,” he says. “I get pictures when they’re married. That’s a reward.”