Before medical school, Tony Weaver, DO, was a petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, a cornea harvester and a registered nurse. This year, he became the first DO graduate of the University of Mississippi’s plastic surgery residency program and the first Native American to complete an ACGME plastic surgery residency program.
In this edited Q&A, Dr. Weaver, now a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Huntsville Hospital in Alabama, describes his pathway to a plastic surgery residency and offers advice to medical students interested in this specialty.
Why did you choose a plastic surgery residency?
Plastic surgery is the most dynamic specialty. One moment you’re repairing a cleft lip on a neonate, the next you’re removing skin cancer on someone nearing 100, then you’re reattaching a finger, and then you’re working next to a neurosurgeon and reattaching a skull.
Plastic surgery gives you exposure to orthopedic, ENT, general, neuro, and pediatric surgery. It’s always changing. No day is the same.
What does it take to become a plastic surgeon?
There are actually two paths to becoming a plastic surgeon. The first path is to complete a six-year plastic surgery residency. The second path is to complete a full residency in general surgery, otolaryngology, orthopedics, or neurosurgery, and then complete a three-year residency in plastic surgery.
I did the second path and completed residency in general surgery and then went on to do another residency in plastic surgery. I am AOA board certified in general surgery.
Where did you do your first residency in general surgery?
I was at Mayo Clinic in Florida for the first two years completing a residency in general surgery, and then I transferred for my third year to the Baptist Health System in Birmingham, Alabama. I had ran into a physician who worked at the Baptist Health System and found out there would be a spot open the next year. My wife and I wanted to get closer to home, so I applied to it and was accepted.
How many applications did you send out?
I sent 30 or so when I applied for my general surgery residency, and I sent out 12 applications for my plastic surgery residency.
How many interview requests did you receive?
I received 11 total and went to nine interviews when I applied for my first residency in general surgery. When I applied for my second residency in plastic surgery, I received only three interview requests. Honestly, I had expected more. But it’s important for applicants to remember that it only takes one. You’re not doing 10 residencies, you’re doing one, so don’t get disheartened if someone gets 20 interviews and you get one.
What personal practices helped you land your plastic surgery residency?
Networking and the three As: being available, being able, and being affable. I had a good work ethic and would get to my shifts early and stay late. I did a lot of research, which I think is very important for all doctors to do, and I studied a lot.
Diligence, resilience, and a good work ethic will take you a lot further than COMLEX and USMLE scores.
After going through the process, what do you think applicants should really focus on?
Focus on the audition rotation first and foremost. And when applying, don’t be discouraged by a perceived deficiency in your application. Applicants should focus on what they do well and what their strengths are to make their application stand out.
The general surgery residency at Mayo Clinic in Florida had a minimum USMLE score that was significantly higher than mine and only had one position available. I focused my application on my great work ethic, positive outlook, research experience, and ability to make good relationships with faculty and patients, and I was able to secure the only spot open.
Looking back, what’s a piece of advice you wish you got during medical school?
Always remember your intermediate and long-term goals. Investments that are made today will propel you forward. If you aren’t doing something today to work toward your goals, it is very easy to get off track.
What advice do you have for minority students and physicians in medical school or residency?
Don’t allow anyone or society to attempt to define you. Don’t accept their labels for you—positive or negative. As a minority, I am defined by a culture that is part of who I am, and I am not defined by labels that a person or society gives me.
Stay grounded with an unshakable foundation of culture, faith, and family. I have found that if you have that foundation, when hardships come your way, you will know they are only temporary.