Beyond Skin Deep
Monroe native Dr. Timothy Mickel reflects on his journey from St. Christopher’s Day School to Parkland Dallas to the back porch of his Garden District office. Along the way, he shares insights into compassion, overcoming adversity, and what makes a good roux. But don’t think it’s all about vanity for this plastic surgeon, because under the surface is where the real stuff of life can be found.
article by Michael DeVault
photography by Brad Arender
At the dawn of the 20th Century, just as America shed the adolescence of the Civil War and was beginning to show glimmers of the miracles she would accomplish in the coming decades, a tiny island in Upper New York Bay served as the gateway to all the hope and promise that the New World had to offer.
From the day Ellis Island opened in 1892 until it closed in 1954, some 12 million hopefuls passed through, setting out to find their American dream under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty. Sometime near the turn of the century, one of the many who passed through was a young Lebanese man, Joseph Mickel.
“He was a peddler, who went from community to community, tending to gravitate to people who spoke Arabic,” says Timothy Mickel, his grandson. Joseph eventually made his way to Dermott, Arkansas, where he met a group of Arabic-speaking Lebanese immigrants. One of them, a young woman, caught his eye. He married Sarah Haddad, and together they set out building their American family.
More than 100 years later, Timothy Mickel–still Timmy to his friends–is one of dozens of descendants and relatives of this uniting of the Mickel-Haddad clan who still call northeastern Louisiana home. These days, few Mickels speak Arabic, a product of diligent assimilation into the American lifestyle.
“The only affect it’s had on me is that I can make mean cabbage rolls, know how to do kibbie and I can make tabouli,” Mickel tells BayouLife, recalling that his grandmother and great aunts frequently spoke Arabic, but that was about it. “It was just not an emphasis at all. My father was completely Americanized.”
For Mickel, his ethnic background underscores the importance of that American ideal, what drove his grandfather to come to the country in the first place. “What’s interesting is that, like most of the immigrants of their day, they looked at America as a land of opportunity, worked hard and instilled a work ethic in their children,” Mickel says. That work ethic began to show itself at an early age in little Timmy, who like so many other members of his family, would go on to become a pillar of the community, taking part in community service projects, volunteering his talent and skills as a surgeon to help the less fortunate and investing his time and resources to bringing events and opportunities to the Twin Cities that improve the region’s livability.
A consummate Louisiana man, Mickel is just as likely to be found around the fire at the hunting camp as he is to be hosting a weekly men’s prayer group that has met on the back porch of his Garden District office every Monday morning for the last 15 years. He and his wife, Stephanie, are empty nesters these days, and they busy themselves with a bevy of social and charitable functions. At the heart of everything he does, though, is a core of service to community that comes from that most American of roots, the desire to take advantage of opportunity when it arises. For a myriad of professional accomplishments, more than two decades of community service and for being a beacon of kindness and civility in the community, Timothy Mickel is every bit a Bayou Icon.
From an early age, Mickel exhibited the entrepreneurial spirit and drive that have served him well as Monroe’s premier plastic surgeon. He attended St. Christopher’s Day School and Grace Episcopal, but by the time his freshman year rolled around, times were changing. Desegregation was the order of the day, and the way Monroe City Schools opted to comply was to create a 9th Grade Center at Carroll High School. Students who would eventually attend Neville or Wossman for their sophomore, junior and senior years were shunted into Carroll for their freshman years. For many families on Monroe’s upper northside, this meant a year at one of the area’s private schools. But not for the Mickel household.
“My parents made me stick it out,” Mickel recalls. It was a decision that had profound and lasting impact on the man he would eventually become. These were trying times for a community that had, until just months before, been almost completely segregated along racial lines, and no one from any community was pleased with the manner in which the system had undertaken the task of integrating the schools. “I learned volumes about life, about dealing with adversity and about how to get along. It really was an interesting experience.”
In adversity, there is almost always opportunity, and it didn’t take long for Timmy to find it. For reasons passing understanding, the food service situation at the 9th Grade Center was less than ideal. Where other schools boasted full cafeterias, nourishment and at least passable meals, that wasn’t the case at Carroll. Mickel puts it bluntly. “The food sucked,” he says with a laugh.
So Mickel borrowed a page from the family tree and began to capitalize on this hidden opportunity. He began packing extra sandwiches each morning in his lunch bag, sandwiches he would in turn sell to his classmates for a quarter. Pretty soon, he was able to parlay his popularity into a fledgling enterprise that produced, in his words, a pocketful of money. It seemed a future in the food industry might just have been in his future, and were it not for the intervention of a vigilant teacher, the world might not have known Dr. Timothy Mickel. It happened one morning when it came time to distribute orders and his teacher told the class to take out their lunches.
While some students produced small lunch boxes, brown paper bags and carefully wrapped waxpaper sandwiches, Mickel plopped a large bag on his desk, which drew the attention of his teacher, who inquired about the bag’s contents. “She blew the whistle,” Mickel says. “She somehow thought there was something wrong with that.”
Even absent the teacher’s intervention in clandestine sandwich sales, Mickel’s career as a sandwich maven was doomed to shortness, rendered terminal by his father’s attentiveness to the family grocery stock. Dad had realized they were using far more cheese, lunch meat and bread than usual, and he raised the subject with his son. With a businessman’s attention to costs, he presented his son with a detailed cost analysis. Between bread, meat, cheese, condiment and wrapping, each sandwich ran about twenty cents to make. Selling a sandwich for a nickel’s profit didn’t appeal to Timmy, and he knew better than to expect his classmates to cough up half a buck for lunch. “It was a real business lesson. You can’t just make 100 percent profit,” Mickel says.
When he arrived at Neville the following year, Mickel joined a host of student organizations. One of those organizations, Interact, enjoyed a rather unique weekly responsibility. They served Shasta duty. Every Friday, a group of Neville’s best would load up Shasta, a live Bengal tiger, at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, transport him across town to the high school and then tend the school’s mascot at pep rallies and football games. Mickel marvels now that they repeated this trip numerous times without injury or incident, noting no one ended up in a ditch or bitten, scratched or mauled. Such was life 40 years ago.
“Those were fun times,” he says. “I was sitting on top of the tiger cage when they beat Airline in ’72, the year when we had to win three times in a week.” About the same time he was tending the tiger, the Interact president took the SAT–something students did just once in those days. He scored well, and that’s when “the best thing that ever happened to me” happened. Vanderbilt University came calling. “If there are a couple of seminal events that make you who you are, shape you as an adult, going to Vanderbilt was one for me,” says Mickel of his acceptance to the prestigious school.
An internationally renowned university, Vanderbilt in the 1970s offered his first introductions to individuals from around the country and around the world. For a young man from Monroe, Vanderbilt was an eye opener, exposing him to the world of possibilities that existed beyond his tiny hometown. At the same time, the school’s academic rigor required hard work and diligence. Success at Vanderbilt comes at a price. “I developed intellectual discipline there because you’re around people who are smart, have been to good prep schools and that really makes you want to learn,” Mickel says. His hard work paid off when, four years later, he was accepted to LSU Medical School in New Orleans.
For just $800 a year, a medical student could attend classes at the school and tend patients in Charity Hospital, known affectionately as “Big Charity” to the medical community. At the time, it was the largest charity hospital in the country and one of the top medical centers in the south. A teaching hospital, Big Charity student-doctors were exposed to virtually every possible medical challenge imaginable. The hospital was among the best in the country. “When you think of those types of training programs, you think about Cook County Hospital-Chicago, Grady in Atlanta, Parkland in Dallas and Charity in New Orleans,” Mickel said. At Charity, it wasn’t just about sitting back and listening. Instead, student-doctors were hands on with patients, practicing medicine in the purest sense under a “see one, do one, teach one” model of instruction.
“They threw you in there. You had to think on your feet, respond quickly, and assimilate not only a vast amount of book knowledge but technical skills,” Mickel says. For a young doctor, practicing medicine at Big Charity could be a harrowing experience. “I spent a lot of sleepless nights worried that I was going to kill somebody. I think that gives you that level of sphincter tone that gives you the skills to be a better doctor.”
hile at Charity, Mickel developed a love for ear, nose and throat practice, or ENT. At the time, the best ENT program in the country was at the University of Iowa, which accepted just five percent of applicants. Mickel ranked among that five percent. But first, he would have to spend a year fulfilling the prerequisite general surgery practice. Doing so took him to a second iconic hospital, one with a long entry in the history books and a place that would help to write his future. That hospital was Parkland.
Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas ranks among the most iconic healthcare facilities in the nation.
Owning in part to its central proximity to the assassination of President John Kennedy, Parkland’s surgery program is a well-known and highly respected residency. One key factor set the hospital apart and played a major role in shaping Mickel’s career. Comprehension of the full scope of Parkland’s import requires understanding the pyramid model followed by most surgical residencies. In a pyramid model, perhaps twenty doctors are accepted. At the end of the first period, five doctors are eliminated in a process that will repeat until, at last, just five are graduated from the program. At Parkland, everyone works together, diligently and with dedication, to ensure that all of the doctors accepted complete the program. “That program was such a green beret kind of surgery program. So much esprit de corps,” Mickel says. If ten doctors started the program, Parkland expected ten to finish. “It really fostered a lot of camaraderie.”
Mickel completed his general surgery training and embarked on a career as an ENT, entering the program in Iowa City. Every day, he spent hours in clinic, and he quickly realized his practice was missing something. Where at Parkland every trauma patient came through his doors and he was the triage doctor on alternating nights, spending time with the critically ill and wounded, at Iowa City he spent hours in clinic surrounded by runny noses, the headached and the dizzy. “I just couldn’t stay there. I went back into general surgery.”
Back at Parkland, Mickel jokes, he was “probably the only guy to ever go back into general surgery.” Leaving a lucrative specialty like ENT for the life of a trauma surgeon wasn’t something that happened every day, and his colleagues noticed. “They thought I was nuts,” he laughs.
After Parkland, he spent time at the VA, at Baylor, and at Children’s Hospital, where he fell in love with the work of plastic surgery.
“That was probably the second, after going to Vanderbilt, big intellectual awakening I had,” says Mickel. One of the guiding philosophies of general surgery is “never let the skin get in the way of a diagnosis or treatment,” but in plastic surgery, the emphasis shifts.
“Suddenly the emphasis wasn’t on getting it done. It was getting it done right in an aesthetically pleasing way, in a way where there wasn’t just function, but form — to borrow an architectural term,” Mickel said. With plastic surgery, Mickel discovered a way to help individuals in a wholly novel way. Plastic surgery offered Mickel the opportunity to help people fulfill their personal visions inside and out.
He shrugs off suggestions that plastic surgery can be vanity, noting that many times a month he’s called in to consult in area emergency rooms on how best to treat visible wounds to prevent scarring. At the same time, plastic surgeons are also called upon to treat any of a host of birth defects, including cleft lip and palate. Still, the heart of his practice is elective cosmetic surgery, an area of practice that many find superficial. That’s rarely the case, according to Mickel.
“There is only a small shred of difference between wanting to look your best in designer clothes, to want to put your best foot forward, and to having a chin implant so that your face is more proportional,” Mickel says. In such situations, the patient often finds a renewed confidence that helps to unlock their inner sense of self-worth. His example patient is a well-adjusted woman who, because of breast size, is a wallflower. “In the wintertime, things aren’t so bad, but when it comes time to put a bathing suit on, she’s extremely self conscious about that. The guy is also self-conscious because, maybe, he’s a little chubby. He can work out. She can’t.”
Mickel’s practice is about taking that woman, spending an hour in the operating room and, without engaging in anything gaudy or over-the-top, helping her outwardly reach her inner self. “She becomes confident, less of a wall flower and the potential that was there before is unleashed,” Mickel says. He makes a similar argument about facelifts. As the healthy age of maturity has grown increasingly later, individuals have maintained healthy lifestyles well into their 70s and 80s. “If you feel like you’re 35, but you look like you’re 70, there’s nothing wrong with bringing your face, neck and jawline with the way the rest of you feels,” Mickel says. “It’s not necessarily about vanity. It’s about being who you are.”
In almost every facet of Mickel’s life, vanity is absent. Whether the task at hand is a tummy tuck or serving coffee to the men’s group, Mickel approaches his work with a humility and compassion that have helped him succeed on the numerous boards and committees he’s served. If vanity enters into Mickel’s personality anywhere, it’s when talk turns to the couple’s brood of five children. All grown now, Mickel can’t help but break into a bit of fatherly pride when discussing the successes of each of his children.
The couple’s oldest is Jennifer, who completed her first degree at Princeton, a feat she followed up with studies at the American University in Cairo and a stint with a Washington, D.C. NGO before being stationed in Swaziland. Now 30, Jennifer is enrolled in a joint MBA/JD program at Northwestern, in Chicago. He describes their second child, Johnny, as a “goodtime Charlie” who completed an agri-business degree at LSU in a surprising five years before entering the oil and gas commodities trade.
Twins Becky and Katie are the Mickels’ study in contradiction. Where Becky is a “girly girl,” Katie is laid back. Becky earned a degree in journalism and now works for Martha Stewart Weddings in Hoboken. Katie, who majored in Latin am. Culture and Spanish at the University of Georgia, ultimately graduating summa cum laude, is at LSU, studying for a Masters in Latin American studies. Eventually, he thinks, she’ll teach at college level.
Timmy and Stephanie’s youngest child, son David, followed his father’s path to Tennessee for his undergraduate. But instead of enrolling at Vanderbilt, David earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Sewannee, the University of the South. These days, David is making his way in Austin, Texas, and Mickel expects his youngest son will eventually end up in graduate school as well.
Talking about his kids, Timmy’s youthful pride and boisterousness comes out. “People ask me about my kids, and I tell them what they’re doing, and I’m almost embarrassed. They think I’m making it up,” he says.
But he stops shy of taking any credit for the way the Mickel kids turned out. Instead, that credit goes immediately to Stephanie. “They really are a tribute to their mother. They were with someone who was intellectual, articulate and cared about them.”
Like Timmy, Stephanie graduated from Vanderbilt. “She could have done anything, but she chose to stay at home and take care of our children,” Mickel says. It was a decision he still admires today–and the single most important factor in the success of their children, as he sees it. “It’s one of those things. You can’t say enough about her, can’t put a price on it.”
With the kids all out of the house, he and Stephanie busy their time with the charities, the civic groups and the church activities that they’re most passionate about. One of the areas the Mickels have committed considerable effort to is historical preservation.
In addition to a major commitment to keeping his practice in the Garden District, Mickel also maintains interests in other historical properties. “It’s about preserving the historical integrity with several of the districts of our community. That’s got really far reaching consequences when you step back and look at the historical picture,” Mickel says. Historical preservation isn’t about keeping things the way they were so much as it is about maintaining reminders of where a community came from.
He quotes architect Doug Breckenridge, noting “a city that decides not to preserve its architecture erases its history.”
He and Stephanie are also avid supporters of the United Way, volunteer at the soup kitchen and other high-impact charities. “I think that philanthropic organizations that have a low administrative overhead, where the money you give goes to actually helping and not to administrative costs, those are important.”
At the heart of everything is the couple’s church, First Presbyterian, where they worship and serve. Mickel is quick to dismiss any sense of spotlight on his faith. “I don’t profess to be holier than anyone, and in fact, I can be a model Pharisee,” Mickel says. “But in this crazy world we live in, I fall back on this spiritual foundation every day.”
Thirty years into his career, he’s still hard at work making the world a more beautiful place. For the last twenty years, one of his most fulfilling roles has been as the medical director of the cleft lip and palate clinic. Through the clinic, Mickel has treated hundreds of children born with a deformed lip or palate. “It’s gratifying, at this stage of life, to see children I repaired fifteen, twenty years ago, that have grown up to be productive adults with a normal appearance.”
The wife, the kids, the career, the philanthropy, if all of this isn’t enough to make for a full, wonderful life, the next time you bump into Timmy at Brookshires, just be sure to ask him about a roux–because he’s an avid cook, too.