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A brother's generosity and an uncle's skill love on in endowment

Medicine@Yale, 2009 - Jan Feb


On a recent visit to the School of Medicine, Roy Polayes, of Hartsdale, N.Y., recalled the many weekends at his childhood home when his parents sat at the kitchen table sorting through paperwork. Polayes’ father had a private surgery practice, for which his mother handled the billing. “They would sit around the table and discuss accounts receivable—which patients hadn’t paid, and which ones couldn’t pay,” Polayes says. “Certainly my father had his own expenses and bills to pay, but more often than not he wound up making the decision that was best for the patient.”

In keeping with that spirit of generosity, Roy’s father, Irving M. Polayes, M.D., a New Haven plastic surgeon, dentist and voluntary faculty member in the Department of Surgery’s Section of Plastic Surgery from 1965 to 1997, is one of two members of his family to be honored recently with a named professorship. The other, Roy’s great-uncle, Silik H. Polayes, Ph.D., earned his graduate degree from Yale in 1921 and worked as a pathologist in New York. The $2.5 million gift endowing the new Irving and Silik Polayes Professorship in Plastic Surgery in 2007 was made by Irving’s brother, Maurice B. Polayes, a Massachusetts-based engineer. “We were a very close family,” says Maurice. “I think my brother accomplished a considerable amount in his specialty, and I felt that he and my uncle should be recognized.”

The first surgeon to hold the new chair is John A. Persing, M.D., professor of surgery, chief of the section of plastic surgery and director of the Yale Craniofacial Program. Appointed to the chair in April 2007, Persing, like Polayes, specializes in treating children with facial and skull deformities.

The professorship will make it easier for Persing to continue his pro bono surgical work, which makes up some 35 to 40 percent of his practice at Yale’s craniofacial clinic and has also taken him abroad to Brazil and Jordan.

“Polayes was a master craftsman of that area,” says Persing. But he adds that his colleague, who died in 1999, was not merely skilled, he was an innovator. In addition to developing several surgical procedures, Polayes was among the first surgeons in the nation to train residents to repair facial injuries and congenital deformities like cleft palate. “He recognized there wasn’t a good training program for people who wanted to do this work,” Persing explains. “Thinking well ahead of everybody else, he developed a very extensive curriculum.” The training system Polayes developed is still in use by the American Society of Maxillofacial Surgeons.

Roy Polayes thinks his father’s interest in pediatric facial repair may have been sparked while he served as an emergency surgeon and found himself treating victims of automobile accidents, many of whom were children. “He felt almost called to help kids,” he says, adding that he sees a reflection of his late father’s caring manner in Persing’s approach to medicine. Roy visited the clinic in October on behalf of his uncle Maurice, and he saw firsthand some of the many children under Persing’s care. “I was so inspired by what I saw,” he says. “I saw a lot of that very same benevolence at work. This is like my father’s dream come to life.”

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