Vincent Giampapa, a board-certified plastic reconstructive surgeon, was the world's first board-certified anti-aging physician. And his patent on a sensing prosthesis was used by NASA.
It started with a cash prize and award for artwork, clearly illustrating his abilities in drawing and visualization, and evolved into a study of human anatomy and the works of none other than Leonardo da Vinci. But even Vincent Giampapa, MD, FACS, himself could not have imagined just how far that affinity for the human body would take him.
Today, Giampapa is the chief science offer at CellHealth Institute, where he is leading a movement for preventative health care built around the health of people’s cells. He still paints, but he looks back at those adolescent years and his fascination with the human body as the key to how his career has evolved.
“The bottom line is, the more you learn about how something functions, the more deeply you want to understand the process,” Giampapa explains. “Initially it was about just the structure of how the human body worked, and then it was about the physiology. Then it was about the biochemistry. Then it was about the genetics. And then, once you hit a certain level of information, or knowledge, you start trying to apply that knowledge to areas where no one’s gone before.”
A different approach
Giampapa, a board-certified plastic reconstructive surgeon, was the world’s first board-certified anti-aging physician and founding member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
His attraction to anti-aging began during his years in medical school and as a resident at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City. He would sit in the operating room observing his professors and take note of the poor nutritional status of patients.
When he questioned, “How come we don’t have any courses on nutrition and wound healing, and what happens at the cell level?” he was told, “Well, that’s for the dietician.” That stimulated his interest in how cells age, and what keeps a cell healthy. More over, he recognized the importance of teaching people how to stay healthy, rather than waiting for them to get ill and treating their diseases.
“We started to talk about anti-aging because it was a whole new phrase back in the late ’80s,” Giampapa says. “No one really had used that term. But it conjures up non-credibility and quackery, particularly today with the level of knowledge we have of cellular aging and health. Today we don’t really speak about anti-aging, but we speak about cellular health; we speak about managing the aging process at the cellular level; and we speak about things that are much more credible and have scientific support. So, I think [anti-aging is] a misnomer, and it think it’s probably a cliché term that is ready to be retired.”
Friends in high places
Early in his career, Giampapa completed a year of microsurgery and a fellowship in transplantation surgery at New York University Medical Center. He recalls that it was a particularly busy year — some 360 emergency transplantations were performed — where arms, legs and fingers had to be reattached. The problem, however, was that even after surgery, patients rarely had any sensation in these limbs.
“They could move their fingers or their hands, but they had completely lost the sensation,” Giampapa recalls.
He designed an apparatus and filed a patent on a sensing prosthesis. It would measure vibratory sensation, much like putting a tuning fork on the tip of a patient’s finger, which could be felt right down into their bone. And he noticed that by using different frequencies for each of the five fingers, patients could immediately distinguish with their eyes closed — even if their fingers were non-sensing — what finger was being touched.
“I assigned a different vibrating frequency to each finger, such as from the thumb to the index finger,” Giampapa explains. “And when you put the two vibratory frequencies together, you get a third frequency. Well, patients quickly learned how to identify whether it was one, two or three fingers that were being touched together, because the frequency changed as you mixed them together.”
His work prompted a phone call from NASA asking for his help. The space agency was trying to design the space shuttle arm so that when it reached out to grab something in space, scientists could recognize not only when the arm was holding the object, but also how firmly it was being grasped. After four or five one-hour phone calls providing information on vibrating frequencies and such, Giampapa was simply told, “Thank you very much doctor. We appreciate your help.”
“That was my claim to fame,” Giampapa laughs. “But I’m proud to say there’s probably something on the shuttle that at least originated somewhere deep in my brain.”
Defending his turf
Giampapa still paints, which he says puts him in an extremely relaxed and meditative mood. He calls it a creative process, in some ways much like doing surgery in an operating room.
He has also become very accomplished in the martial arts. He rejected fighting as a child when his father put boxing gloves on him, though after getting hit in the face two or three times, he finally started fighting back, eventually winning several boxing tournaments at the local boys club. And when he began he taking his children to tae kwon do classes on Saturday mornings, it was Giampapa, not his children, who excelled. He would go on to become a fifth degree black belt in tae kwon do, and a second degree black belt in hapikdo.
“I still practice at least twice a week, but I stretch every day,” Giampapa says. “For me, that became another form of meditation in motion, so to speak. And I find it extremely relaxing. It keeps you flexible; it keeps the reflexes sharp and your balance great.”
Passing it on
Giampapa acknowledges that he has been extremely lucky in his life, and as such uses his expertise philanthropically, having performed courtesy reconstructive surgery on children with disfigurements. His only request for payment, if you will, is that they promise to do the same for others.
“I’m hoping that somewhere, somehow this will start to amplify, and everybody else will somehow benefit,” Giampapa explains. “Not just the one person I’ve helped, but I’m hoping that one person that I’ve helped will touch as many people as possible.”