Lori Saltz: She Sews on People for a Living and on Clothes for Fun

It was virtually inevitable that Dr. Lori Saltz would develop a fascination for stitching. Her mother is an expert seamstress and her father is a surgeon. Saltz is both. She is one of only a handful of Southern California women plastic surgeons, and she is a master of French hand-sewing.

“I sew on people for a living and clothes for fun,” says Saltz, whose smocked and otherwise embellished dresses for little girls will be displayed at the annual trunk show at Sew Special in Vista Sept. 13 to 15. From early childhood in Portland, Ore., Saltz says she knew she wanted to learn to sew and to be a doctor. “My earliest memories of my mother are of her sitting at the sewing machine,” Saltz recalls. It was one of those old-fashioned kind with the treadle. She made all my clothes and my doll clothes. My grandmother taught me to embroider when I was really small.”

Saltz says she “could hardly wait” to learn to sew on the machine, but her mother wouldn’t allow it until she was in the third grade. She learned to sew by hand when she was just a tot and she plans to start teaching her 2-year-old daughter to sew soon.

“We’ll start with a big blunt needle and some yard and fabric,” says Saltz, who puts most of her sewing efforts into making fancy dresses for her daughter.

Along with the sewing, Saltz remembers a lot of talk about doctoring when she was growing up since her father was in his second year of medical school when she was born. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would be a doctor when I grew up,” says Saltz, who is also married to a physician.

After completing her undergraduate work at Stanford University, Saltz earned her medical degree at the University of Oregon in 1980 and trained for three years in general surgery at Mt. Sinai medical Center in Miami Beach. She then completed a three-year residency in plastic surgery at Loyola University Medical Center in suburban Chicago. Early on she had to make a decision about the direction her medical career would take. “The basic decision is whether to be an internist or a surgeon,” Saltz explains. “I like to work with my hand, so I chose surgery.”

Her love of detail and her will-developed sense of aesthetics drew her to plastic surgery, a specialty that would not require her to respond to crises in the middle of the night and would allow her to fit parenting and being a wife in with her work, she said.

“I like intricate, delicate work as a woman with a family who needed to have control over her hours, plastic surgery seemed perfect,” says Saltz, who recently joined a cosmetic surgery practice in La Jolla. She finds the work rewarding and appreciates dealing with patients who leave her office “happier than when they came in.”

Saltz does all kinds of plastic surgery, including facial cosmetic surgery and body contouring (liposuction), but breast reconstruction is her particular interest and she feels that as a woman she can be more sensitive to the many complex psychological, emotional and physical issues involved when a woman loses a breast to cancer.

Another of Saltz’s special interests is volunteer work with children in Mexico, where she goes to surgically repair cleft lips, palates and other congenital deformities. Though a cleft palate is not a life-threatening condition, children in Mexico who suffer such deformities can die from neglect. “The people are superstitious and they believe children with cleft palates or lips are evil or possessed,” Saltz recounts. “They lock them away in closets. One woman even gave her child away to an orphanage. I repaired the cleft, but she still wouldn’t take him back.”

Saltz gets quick feedback on her cosmetic work but some of her reconstructive work goes unnoticed by patients. She remembers one case in particular where the patient, and auto-accident victim, was in a coma.

“She had gone through a windshield,” says Saltz. “It took over 200 stitches to sew her forehead back together.” Saltz says she stitched patiently for three hours to repair the woman’s forehead.

The same meticulous stitchery that goes into repairing foreheads and reconstructing sites where cancers have been removed is evident in the little dresses Saltz sews for her daughter, Gillian.

She says she likes to work with “timeless fabrics,” such as silks, batistes and Victorian prints.

Sometimes called “heirloom sewing,” some of the garments that Saltz sews duplicate antique clothing. They will be displayed, along with about 400 other examples of heirloom sewing at the trunk show.

Excerpted from The North County Blade-Citizen by Pat Stein