A one-of-a-kind dermatologist manages to involve his family in his career while creating new products and traveling for volunteer medical missions.
You’re traveling in pretty exclusive circles when you’re one of a kind. That’s the way it is for Joel Schlessinger, MD, the only physician in Nebraska who is board certified in dermatology, general cosmetic surgery and pediatrics — though by his own admission he has not made recent use of his pediatric training except when making volunteer medical mission trips.
Schlessinger studied the basic sciences of medical school at Brown University, and completed his clinical rotations at Baylor College of Medicine. He went on to do his internship and residency in pediatrics at the University of Alabama Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, but something prompted a change in direction.
“I [changed specialties] late in my pediatric residency when I realized that I would be happier as a dermatologist and I enjoyed the aspects that dermatology could provide,” Schlessinger says. “The options for both surgical and medical were quite unique in dermatology, and the fact that you’re doing cognitive thinking as well as the surgical application was quite interesting to me. Although I enjoy pediatrics, I didn’t care for the fact that when things became interesting, kids were generally suffering.”
The change in career focus has proven to be most fulfilling for Schlessinger. He began practicing dermatology in 1992, and a year later opened Skin Specialists, P.C., which offers general dermatology services. However, later that same year Schlessinger opened the Advanced Skin Research Center at his Skin Specialists location. Since then, the center has conducted more than 200 research studies investigating new medications and treatments for a wide range of skin conditions and cosmetic procedures.
“The research has been one of the most rewarding and intellectually challenging parts of my practice for quite some time,” Schlessinger explains. “Whereas I didn’t think that I would ever want to do research in an academic environment, I find it very satisfying to be able to see a product in development and take it from its nescient stage to a ready-to-sell phase. It allows me the opportunity to see what’s in the pipeline, and to know what’s happening before it happens.”
In 2000, Schlessinger, together with five dermatology colleagues, felt it was important to offer a venue for professionals who weren’t necessarily surgically inclined, yet were interested in cosmetic surgery. Those feelings gave rise to the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery.
“Around that time, there really wasn’t any outlet to train or to gather people for a cosmetic dermatology meeting, because the existing societies were more interested in either Mohs surgery or other serious surgical procedures,” Schlessinger recalls. “For whatever reason, things like Botox, fillers and cosmeceuticals weren’t being given much respect at that time, even in dermatology. So, this was an off-shoot of people who really had no intention of doing any major procedures but did want to learn about cosmetic dermatology.”
The organization has since changed hands multiple times, and Schlessinger is no longer affiliated with it.
Father and son
Ever the entrepreneur, Schlessinger says that the line of FixMySkin Healing Balms he invented actually came about through a somewhat serendipitous experience with his son, Daniel. When Daniel was 12-years old in 2006, he experienced problems with cracked fingers and dry skin that often accompany a Nebraska winter. Not having anything else in his pocket other than lip balm, he used that on his fingers, but lamented to his father, “Dad, this is okay, but it’s not helping me as much as I thought it would.”
Schlessinger explained that lip balm is made for different areas of mucosal skin, and isn’t intended to be used on fingers. A lengthy discussion ensued, after which Schlessinger suggested Daniel search the Internet to see what products might be available for cracked hands, fingers, or other parts of the body that were available in a stick-like balm. Finding nothing, Schlessinger utilized Daniel’s interest in science to collaborate on the formulation of a new product.
“It was great to see him grow in this process,” the doctor says. “Initially, we would have him in these meetings with patent attorneys and chemists and manufacturers, and I knew that he was absorbing things but not as much as he normally could have if he was educated. But later on in the process, he had learned so much that he was able to drive the entire project when I was very busy and didn’t have the time to really pay as much attention to the manufacturing and FDA regulation aspects of it. So, he brought it through that process very deftly.”
Today, FixMySkin Healing Balms are among the 8,000 products Schlessinger sells through LovelySkin.com, an online retailer of cosmeceuticals, and the recently opened LovelySkin retail store in Omaha.
In addition to his work in the field of skin care, Schlessinger spends much of his time giving back to humanitarian causes. Along with his family, he made two relief trips to Haiti after the earthquake, and he and his staff regularly donate to AIDS charities in Rwanda. He also makes donations of makeup to battered women’s shelters, and to women recovering from addictions so they can start a new life.
“I think it’s so very important for physicians and people who are more advantaged to give back to the community,” Schlessinger says. “And it always has to be noted that we are extraordinarily fortunate in our profession, and, without giving back, it doesn’t make sense.”
The trips to Haiti also had a career impact on his son Daniel.
“It was a great opportunity for Daniel to see what medicine was like in the trenches and see whether it was something that he was interested in or didn’t care for,” Schlessinger says. “And that probably was more instrumental than anything in making him the person he is and showing him what a great field medicine is and can be.”
Through all the work he has done, Schlessinger says the most important aspect has been his family’s involvement with his practice and professional life.
“I’ve always said that if you have your professional life but you don’t have a family, you don’t really have anything to look back on and to potentially look upon as a legacy,” he explains. “But if you have both your family life and a professional life that are rich and rewarding, it makes each one better.”