If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch
If, Rudyard Kipling.
“John had that ability,” said Dr. Robert Derhagopian, director of the Baptist Breast Center at Baptist Hospital, as he cited the Kipling poem. That line, he felt, described his colleague, Dr. John Cassel.
Cassel, a popular plastic surgeon at Baptist who was known as the go-to doctor for breast reconstruction procedures for cancer survivors and for fixing faces of countless children, died suddenly at his Coconut Grove home on May 16. Cassel, a third-generation Miami native, was 67.
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“He gave his whole life to plastic surgery. Beyond being a total gentleman and extremely talented — he used to design jewelry — he would take that talent and take a tough problem and sort of visually decide how to fix it,” said Derhagopian. “He had that unique ability to think about the complicated cases and fix them.”
Cassel did so with a warm embrace, a gentle touch and an artist’s hands, said one of his former patients, Andrea Torres, a reporter for WPLG-Local 10 and a former Miami Herald reporter.
In 2011, Torres was diagnosed with breast cancer at 33. Cassel came into Torres’ life via a recommendation from a friend in New York. “He made a bilateral mastectomy for a woman in her early 30s less traumatizing,” she said.
“He was very gentle and loving and not just to me. When I was in the waiting room, I saw how kind he was to all the women who would walk in there. He was the kind of doctor who would hug. He had sculptures… in his waiting room, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in good hands.’ An artist tends to be a better surgeon,” Torres said.
She was observant. Cassel’s passion for art began at age 10 when he visited the Lowe Art Museum on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. There, he studied art, design and the science of metal and stone. During his undergraduate work at UM he operated a jewelry store in downtown Miami’s Seybold Building. As an artist, Cassel produced works in stained glass and, as a luthier, made acoustic Spanish guitars.
“His office had the feeling that you were walking into someone’s home. Every detail was thought of, from the pillows to the chairs, and the office was always warm and that was done purposely,” Torres said.
Cassel, chief of the Division of Plastic Surgery at Baptist and president of the Greater Miami Society of Plastic Surgeons, saw countless women like Torres. He specialized in cosmetic surgery of the face, eyes, ears, nose and breasts.
He treated children with congenital facial deformities, burns and scars and often performed his corrective surgeries for free as part of Baptist’s annual Day of Smiles program. Cassel saw men, too, who were looking to lose their unlovable “love handles” through liposuction.
One of Cassel’s most moving stories was that of young Mariya Klymenko who suffered extensive burns from scalding water when she was an infant in her native Ukraine. Mariya was just over 2 when she had the first of more than two dozen surgeries at Baptist following the first one in December 1998. A Swedish missionary in the Ukraine had reached out to Cassel with her story.
After about eight years of commuting between countries for procedures, Mariya and her mother Nataliya moved to Miami. For years, on Father’s Day, Mariya would come to Cassel’s office with a card and sing Happy Birthday to her favorite doctor.
After another procedure in 2010, Cassel said of Mariya in a Miami Herald story: “I know you’re not supposed to fall in love with a patient, but I couldn’t help myself.”
Cassel is survived by his children Adrienne and Brandon, whom he raised with ex-wife Robyn, and his brother David. Services will be private.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.