Joseph Gruss, Visionary Craniofacial Surgeon

The world-renowned craniofacial, plastic and reconstructive surgeon is based at Seattle Children's.
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Today, Puget Sound is considered one of the preeminent regions in the world for the practice of craniofacial and reconstructive plastic surgery, and Joseph Gruss is the visionary who made that happen. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Gruss was recruited to Seattle initially by Harborview Medical Center in 1991 and joined Seattle Children’s that same year. He is currently on staff at Seattle Children’s and affiliated with Harborview Medical Center. Gruss is the only physician in the region who has been included in Seattle magazine’s list of Top Doctors every year since the list was first published in 2000. The North Seattle resident is in renowned for his work in correcting severe facial deformities resulting from birth defects or trauma. He may be world-famous, but his commitment to his craft is grounded here at home.

SH: What motivated you to become a doctor?

JG: As a boy, I almost died from a burst appendix after three surgeries in a tent in South Africa.

SH: Why craniofacial and reconstructive plastic surgery?

JG: In the early ’60s, I worked at a children’s hospital in London and met Dr. Paul Tessier, the father of craniofacial surgery, who developed groundbreaking surgical techniques still in use today. Working with him was inspirational. Later I moved to Toronto and applied Tessier’s methods to victims of facial trauma. I realized that doing facial surgery as quickly as possible after severe trauma—and rebuilding the face completely in the first operation—would improve results. It was exciting.

SH: How did the medical community react to these new techniques?

JG: Not so well. They were considered radical. Rebuilding the face right away wasn’t the norm. I couldn’t get published. Other doctors questioned what I was doing.

SH: Even when you came to the Northwest?

JG: Oh yes. It wasn’t easy. I came here in the early ’90s. Harborview was outdated in the treatment of facial injuries. The University of Washington was sophisticated in all other areas, but not in plastic surgery. At Children’s, modern craniofacial surgery wasn’t being done, and there was an enormous backlog of patients. I loved it. Despite the reluctance of some doctors, I had a lot of support from pediatricians and neurosurgeons.

SH: And today?

JG: We have an amazing program, maybe the best in the U.S. The procedures we have perfected here are now used all over the world.

SH: What’s the most compelling thing about what you do?

JG: We have very long-term relationships with patients and their families—20 years or more in some cases. Sometimes we meet the patient prenatally, to help the family prepare (when tests like an ultrasound indicate a severe deformity is likely). We know their siblings. We know their parents. With kids, we treat them from infancy until age 21, when they transfer to Harborview. We usually meet adults after tragic events, like gunshot wounds to the face or severe accidents; they become family too.

SH: With such a demanding job, how do you relax?

JG: I have no trouble relaxing. I work hard, maybe too hard, my family might say. But I could do a beach for a month and enjoy it. I like golf—my wife Eve says I’m addicted to golf—also skiing, fly fishing and kayaking. I enjoy reading, but do it mostly when I travel. The last books I read were the Bourne series. I love movies, but usually watch them at home. Have you seen The Big Lebowski?

It’s amazing. I love travel, too, especially golf trips and visits to Oregon.

SH: Any special plans for when things slow down a bit?

JG: To play legendary golf courses in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Hmmm. Maybe my wife has a point about the golf addiction. ✚