NEW YORK – Parents worried about the fate of their children are drawn to the office of Dr. Steven (Stavros) Stylianos by his renown as a surgeon. They leave filled with confidence because they found a physician who cares deeply about his little patients, and pours his total being into his work.
As Surgeon-in-Chief at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, he operates at the very border of the worlds of science and miracles. In 1993, it was miracle he was asked to perform, a challenge he eagerly embraced.
As conjoined twins, Carmen and Rosa Taveras of the Dominican Republic were born to a tragic fate. When they were nine months old, their parents brought their hope to New York. Despite success being typically defined as merely the survival of just one twin, Stylianos aimed at nothing less than enabling both girls to live full lives.
“When I first saw them their legs were split, going East and West,” he said of the girls conjoined at the hip. “ When they first came to this office and walked and ran and chased each other in this hallway – it was like a miracle,” he told TNH during a conversation with TNH about his life and work.
He was born in the United States, along with his younger sister, the children of Dorothea, who is from Kalamata, and Cypriot Christakis, who settled owned and ran restaurants in New York and New Jersey.
They are retired – Dorothea from the textile/fashion business – and have been married 63 years.
Dr. Stylianos’ sister, Litsa Richardson, is a pediatric ICU nurse. “Very often I will operate on children, then bring them to the ICU, and my sister takes care of them,” he explains.
He and his wife Joann have three daughters, Alexandra 29 who is in the hospitality industry, photo and video producer Vanessa, 26, who was just hired by Apple, and Sophia, 24.
Stylianos did not push them towards medical careers – Alexandra was pre-med until her senior year, but now Sophia, an engineer, who is wrapping up a post in Nairobi, has informed Stylianos she has decided to attend medical school.
“She thought about it carefully and really wants to do it. Medicine has to be a passion and she seems to have the passion,” he said, although it came to him later than most. As the child of immigrants, Stylianos did not have role models, but he was lucky to have an astute and dedicated high school guidance counselor.
In his junior year she asked what he wanted to be. He did not share his rock star dreams – Stylianos still excels as a keyboardist.
“Maybe an architect,” he replied.
“Oh, no!” she said, causing him to think she thought he wasn’t up to it.
She immediately clarified: “I see you as a physician.”
He doesn’t recall exactly what she said, but it was along the lines of “you have something” that suggested a medical career to her.
In addition to being a good student, Stylianos also stood out for the leadership and communications ability he displayed in numerous organizations. Law and politics never appealed to him, but leadership is a transferable skill.
He was the youngest member of the Taveras team when he was made the captain, but he knew he was up to it.
He had just returned to Columbia after four years in Boston. “My boss, my hero, my mentor, Dr. Peter Altman, was sent those twins and I went with him.”
After a long consultation they walked outside and Altman asked for Stylianos’ thoughts.
“My mind was going a hundred miles an hour and I gave him a detailed plan of what I thought we needed to do, in what order, and how we do it. He looked over to me and said ‘OK they are yours. You’re in charge.’”
Backed by the training and confidence of geniuses he powerfully visualized himself bouncing the girls on each of his knees throughout the process.
It was a stellar interdisciplinary group. They rehearsed, anticipated contingencies, and choreographed two teams of doctors, one for each twin, who worked simultaneously knowing that what happened to one would immediately affect the other.
“And we did it,” he said of the 16 hour operation.
But doctors need more than technical ability. Healing is helped by connecting and many brilliant doctors have deadly bedside manners.
Stylianos agreed that it is even more important in pediatricians.
“Absolutely” he said, and cited “the vulnerability of parents at that moment,” which includes feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
“We talk about the trilogy in pediatric surgery: the patient, the mom, and the pediatrician. You have to be good at handling all three, and I enjoy that.”
Stylianos surmised that his ability to connect relates to “my intense feeling of gratitude for the many doors that were opened for me so I could have the chance to be a very good physician trained by the leaders in my field. All that they invested in me as a young man they could have invested in others.” They gave so much so that he could “be somebody.” But talent and gratitude towards mentors doesn’t confer simple humanity.
Told that as the child of restaurateurs watching his parents with customers and employees he learned how to connect with people, Stylianos agreed, but added that he also absorbed much from how they interacted with friends, theirs and his own.
The door of the Stylianos home was always open and everyone was welcome – something he and his wife continue, making their home “a hub of activity” for their children.
“Never shy away from human contact,” he said. “It’s very powerful, you never know where it can lead. I never shy away from it because I think it adds a lot to life, and certainly in these stressful situations with patients I am thankful I was brought up in a way that allowed me to see the importance of such interaction.”
The compassion comes through most clearly when he speaks about the parents of the children he helps.
“There is no greater privilege than for someone to hand you their child and say ‘please save my baby.’ It’s a powerful emotion each time it happens…I empathize with what they are going through even though I was fortunate to have three healthy children.”
His father gave him the “Be Somebody” mantra and his mother kept him “on the straight path” – although being active at St. John’s of Tenafly helped.
His parents were not overly strict, but they were passionate about education.
”We were typical…family was critical,” he said. Stylianos shared fond memories of childhood visits to the “Greek Catskills” – the Olympia hotel in Windham, NY run by the Ioannou family – experiences reflected in the travelling he and his wife love to do.
“In our family, everything was focused on children moving ahead. That is why it’s so meaningful to me that even at this stage of my career…they are still here to see it. It feels so good – because so much of it is them.”
Another sign of the impact of his father was the American-born Greek’s love of soccer. “My dad introduced me to it. I didn’t go out and have a catch with my dad – we kicked a ball around with his buddies.” Stylianos is very pleased that Sophia – whose teams he helped coach – became a very accomplished player.
The Taveras surgery achievement included an exclamation point 20 years later, when Rosa returned to New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, this time to deliver a healthy baby boy, Elijah. She was only fourth conjoined twin in history to give birth after surgical separation. “It was wonderful to be in the delivery room. I felt like a proud uncle… absolutely amazing, the ultimate validation of how wonderful everything turned out 20 years ago.”
Dr. Steven Stylianos’ birth certificate reads Stylianou. It would often be misspelled, either as Stylianov, making him Russian, or Styliano, turning him Italian. Proud of his Greek heritage, he received the approval of his father and changed it legally to Stylianos.