Transgender Surgery Innovations: Dr. Sherman Leis' Growing Practice in Bala Cynwyd

For most gender-reassignment patients, going under the knife is a matter of life and death. It’s a fact that isn’t lost on Dr. Sherman Leis, a Bala Cynwyd surgeon who’s saving lives the world over.

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Illustration by John KrauseJust behind the desk of Dr. Sherman Leis is a photo of Albert Einstein—appropriate, considering that, lately, he’s looking more and more like a genius. Firmly established as a general plastic and cosmetic reconstructive surgeon for more than 30 years, Leis has been carefully converting his practice. These days, he’s booked months—even years—in advance.

At the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery in Bala Cynwyd, Leis has assembled a team of surgeons, psychologists, endocrinologists, aestheticians, speech therapists and legal experts—all dedicated to serving a community like no other. Without question, Leis has extended himself to the transgender population. And once the recession hit and elective plastic surgery took a hit, his own transition as a surgeon took flight.

“To my patients now, it’s not optional elective surgery; it’s a matter of life and death,” says Leis in a deep voice as distinctive as his monogrammed lab coat.

Transgender men and women have an extremely high proclivity for depression and various psychiatric conditions. Seventy percent have suicidal thoughts, says Leis, and 40 percent try to kill themselves at some point. With surgery and a successful transition, such tendencies can shrink to one percent. “Lives are being saved,” he says. “We’re making people happy. We’re giving them the life they want.”

Dis-ease. Leis uses the hyphen and second-syllable emphasis to explain a transgendered person’s condition. “It’s a disorder between the brain and the body,” he says. “Certainly, the patient is not at ease, so it’s a dis-ease. Our job is to get people away from discomfort and create ease in their lives.”

In the process, Leis and just a handful of other surgeons like him in the country are initiating trends, even shaking up the insurance industry. About five percent of own patients are now covered. If a genetic link is substantiated, it’s a medical problem insurance companies can’t ignore.

Transgender issues are also driving federal antidiscrimination legislation, and conferences on the subject are becoming more popular. There’s the Mazzoni Center’s spring Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, and the Keystone Conference in Harrisburg every March. Next month, the Southern Comfort Conference comes to Atlanta, and Boston has an event in January. The next World Professional Association for Transgender Health is slated for February 2013 in Thailand. “I didn’t create or drive these conferences, but now I’m an integral part of them,” Leis says.

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