Carmel Valley doctor helps transform lives of children afflicted with deformities

Dr. Salvatore Pacella  (Photo: Jon Clark)
Dr. Salvatore Pacella (Photo: Jon Clark)

By Arthur Lightbourn

He didn’t say so, but a “flanker” rugby player has to be fast, strong and tenaciousness or he won’t be playing for long — and that’s the position Dr. Salvatore Pacella played in that British-style version of football until he “retired” at 35 three years ago to referee college and high school matches in his spare time.

Pacella, (pronounced “Pa-chella) at 38, also has a day job as a private practice plastic surgeon and the youngest physician to be appointed division head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Scripps Clinic.

And he’s one of 600 San Diego surgeons, dentists and health care workers who volunteer their time and skills, through the Fresh Start Surgical Gifts Foundation, to transform the lives of uninsured infants, children and teens suffering from deformities caused by birth defects, accidents, abuse or disease.

As a facial reconstructive plastic surgeon, Pacella has volunteered at more than 20 Surgery Weekends conducted at Rady Children’s Hospital.

Fresh Start hosts six to seven Surgery Weekends each year, dental clinics 13 times a year and provides free follow-up medical services and additional surgeries as long as needed. Since its incorporation in 1991, Fresh Start has provided more than $20 million worth of free medical services for more than 5,500 children from the U.S. and overseas.

Pacella’s private practice includes all aspects of cosmetic, plastic and reconstructive surgery, with a specialized interest in facial, oculoplastic (eyelid) and breast surgery.

We interviewed Dr. Pacella in his office at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.

He has an enthusiastic, energetic, youthful manner, and the tell-tale stocky build of a former rugby player-turned rugby referee. He is also the father of a seven-month-old boy.

Pacella was born in Buffalo, New York, the son of a GM auto worker. His grandfather, who is now 92, served in the Italian Army in World War II and was a POW in Greece, before immigrating to Buffalo.

Growing up as the middle child in a family of three children, where education was viewed as the key to a better life, Pacella was drawn to the idea of becoming a doctor while in high school — as a career where you could help people, “and not have to punch a ticket.”

“It seemed like a fantastic career which was wide open. You can help the very old and very young, and particularly in plastic surgery, it’s not the kind of job where you’re ever going to get bored, because every surgical problem is unique, every wound is different and every [facial] cancer is in a different place.”

Also in high school, he played football and dreamed of continuing to do so at an Ivy League college like Columbia, but, instead, he won a full academic scholarship to Saint Bonaventure University in upstate New York where they played rugby instead of football.

“As the school year started,” he recalled, “I really missed the feeling of ‘strapping on the pads’ and became a little depressed that football was over for me. A good friend of mine recruited me to join the rugby team, and I immediately loved it and have loved it ever since.”

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