Behind the Mask Is a Miracle Worker Who Restores Ravaged Faces

updated 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Joseph Paderewski of Galveston, Texas is not a doctor and has never taken a single course in medicine. (He is, in fact, a musician by training.) Yet he has given hundreds of disfigured burn and cancer victims the courage to look in a mirror again.

Paderewski, 64, is one of perhaps a half dozen specialists in the world who construct medically approved replacement parts for human faces. For the past 13 years he has worked at the famed Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston. There, in a lab crowded with delicate wooden tools he designed, Paderewski sculpts noses, ears, eyes and in some cases complete facial masks that attach with adhesive and can be stripped off for washing. The parts are made of a silicone rubber material which he also developed. "There is no school to go to in order to learn this kind of work," he says.

Paderewski's colleagues Call him a genius. "There is absolutely no question," says Institute director S. Jeffrey Pascal, "that Joe Paderewski is the master of this kind of work. He is first and foremost an artist—a sculptor. The result of his work is human art."

Paderewski works mostly with badly burned children. In 1957 he devised a silicone mask, which through controlled pressure on the burned face minimizes scarring during the long healing process. Once it is over, Paderewski may make a replacement for an ear or a nose too badly damaged to be repaired by plastic surgery. He also works with adults disfigured by cancer.

The trick is achieving as natural a look as possible. "You have to get that butterfat quality," Paderewski says, "and the coloring should be just right." Learning to do that, however, took time. "My first big mistake was to take a burn patient and make him a beautiful new ear," he says. "He looked ridiculous, because it didn't match his real ear. It was too perfect. Since then I have learned to put scars and discoloration into a prosthesis so it looks as if it belongs. That's where the artistry comes in: a good sense of camouflage." Paderewski's replacements are almost impossible to detect. He has even developed a tint that resembles a handsome tan in the summer.

As a child in Brooklyn, Paderewski studied drawing, sculpture and music. (His father was a tailor; the family is not related to the great Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski.) Joseph spent World War II touring with Andre Kostelanetz as an Army cellist, then studied art at Columbia. He met his future wife, Doris, on a blind date. They married in 1946 and the next year moved to Galveston, where he sculpted by day and played cello evenings with the Houston Symphony.

In his spare time Paderewski began creating commemorative medallions for professors at the University of Texas Medical School. They urged him to try his hand at wax models of surgical procedures and finally to experiment with his first prosthesis, an ear.

He left the symphony in 1956 to concentrate on his unusual—and emotion-charged—craft. He recalls making a new eye orbit (which includes part of the socket and lid) for an elderly cancer victim. "When I put it in place," he remembers, "a tear ran down from her remaining eye and she grabbed my hand and kissed it. When I talk about her, I still feel choked up inside." He also gave a young burn victim an extra set of prosthetic ears with pointed tips like Spock's on Star Trek. It made him the hit of the neighborhood. Paderewski makes more ears than anything else; noses are second.

He is now lobbying to make his speciality a certified branch of medicine and, as evidence, keeps a "drawer of horrors" filled with misshapen, discolored noses and ears made by prosthetic quacks. This month he added one more facet to his amazing career, moving across the street to the university medical school. He will create models for medical students to work on—such as a lifelike plastic breast with lumps in it for diagnosing cancer. His assistant, Roland Morales, 27, will carry on at the Burns Institute.

Paderewski also uses his delicate skills to restore damaged musical instruments. "The man," says an admiring colleague, "is just interested in getting everything back to its original condition—be it a cello or a child."

From Our Partners