Riley’s Plastic Surgeon For Kids: ‘This Isn’t About Vanity’

Blog Tholpady Sunil Portrait Riley Bradford Woods 0608 Md

Kids born with physical anomalies that cause them to be bullied and teased. Dr. Sunil S. Tholpady, M.D., operates on that innocent, vulnerable group. He does everything he can to change that, to make those kids comfortable in their own skin.

He’s standing in the shaded woods of a camp for children with craniofacial anomalies. These kids who have been born with under formed cheeks, misshapen ears, oversized skulls and cleft lips and palates.

Sunil S. Tholpady, M.D., is standing there at the camp watching them with a gentle smile on his face. He is watching them run and play and laugh.

He is watching them forget what’s on the outside of their bodies and focus on the feelings inside – those feelings of being a kid at camp.

Dr. Tholpady’s craft, his handiwork, surrounds him. All these children – some he has operated on to give them, literally, new lives.

Of course, the way a child looks isn’t life or death – in most cases – and Dr. Tholpady knows that. But in the eyes of his kids, his patients – plopped in a world still so superficial -- what they see in the mirror can seem that critical.

“It really gets to the heart of, ‘What’s in your appearance?’” says Dr. Tholpady, a pediatric plastic surgeon at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “There is a lot in your appearance. This isn’t about vanity.”  

It’s confidence. And happiness. And fitting in. It’s feeling comfortable in your own skin.

And Dr. Tholpady is the man who helps children gain all of that. There are the little boys and the big guys. There are tiny baby girls and the teenagers growing into young women.

It is that last demographic, the teen girls, who often are most devastated by a diagnosis. And it is the teenage girls who are among Dr. Tholpady’s favorite surgeries to perform.

“Everything is so dramatic and meaningful at that age,” says Dr. Tholpady. “I can solve their problems and it makes them have so much self-confidence and a new lease on life.”

Among two of the most fulfilling types of cases he works on with teen girls are patients with Poland syndrome and Hidradenitis suppurativa, Dr. Tholpady says.

With Poland syndrome, one side of the chest doesn’t form a breast. Dr. Tholpady puts fat into the chest to build one.

With Hidradenitis suppurativa, patients have recurrent infections in the armpits that produce a foul smell. Dr. Tholpady can cut out both armpits and they heal. The infections and smell disappear.

Dr. Tholpady will often get prom pictures from those girls he has helped.

“It is gratifying when I know that they would otherwise shrink away from any socialization,” he says.

A pediatric plastic surgeon is one that, arguably, is as rewarding as any career in surgery.

These patients aren’t asking for anything other than a chance at a life without stares and teasing. And it is so rewarding to be able to give that to them, Dr. Tholpady says.

“They are the vulnerable and innocent,” he says. “I like being there for them.”

More with Dr. Tholpady

Personal: He is married to wife, Bhagya, and they have two daughters, a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old.

Education: Dr. Tholpady received his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then went to the University of Virginia for a master’s degree in clinical informatics, medical school, a PhD in cell biology and plastic surgery residency. He spent a year doing a pediatric plastics fellowship at Indiana University.

Hobbies: Dr. Tholpady likes to cook and spend time with his family. He also likes hang gliding, woodworking and growing exotic plants

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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