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JoAn Monaco, MD

JoAn Monaco currently lives in New York City where she is in solo practice as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. She is also the Program Director for the Aesthetic Surgery Fellowship at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital of North Shore/LIJ/Lenox Hill Hospital. JoAn has been married to her husband, Mike, for seven years and they have a three-year old daughter, Caroline. Mike is the Director of Bladder and Testes Cancer at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey/Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

“I attended Lehigh University until 1994….which seems like an eternity ago! I earned a BA degree and a Masters of Science in Neuroscience in the five years that I studied at Lehigh. I also completed a French major as part of my undergraduate degree because I enjoyed the classes as a break from all the hard-core science that I had to take for pre-med requirements.” Monaco notes that she attended Lehigh because her father is an aeronautical engineer and Lehigh’s engineering is truly top-notch. “My dad has always hoped that one of his four children would follow in his footsteps and become an engineer, so Lehigh seemed like the perfect environment to do that. I think I might have disappointed my dad a little bit by instead becoming a plastic surgeon as I was his last hope for that dream! Maybe his grandkids will make it happen for him!”

After completing her graduate work at Lehigh, JoAn was awarded a two-year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health where she did HIV and AIDS research under Dr. Anthony Fauci. “It was an incredible fellowship as I was learning so much from the greatest minds in science on a day-to-day basis.” It was during her time at the NIH when she decided to apply to medical school. “I knew that a life in a lab was not the right match for me,” she noted.

Monaco was offered admission to six medical schools and chose the University of Vermont College of Medicine. “UVM was my first choice because it had a unique curriculum that compressed the basic sciences into 18 months instead of the traditional 24 months. This provided me six more months of clinical rotations to learn about different areas of medicine that I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to learn about like radiation oncology, emergency medicine, critical care, etc. I was also able to designate myself as a “surgery major” at UVM which meant I did extra rotations in transplant surgery and trauma which allowed me to take an advanced anatomy dissection lab where I had my own cadaver to work on for a semester to learn about anatomy in a level of detail that a surgeon needs to know....much more detail than the Gross Anatomy course that all med students have to take.”

JoAn Monaco, MD
The hallway where patients line up each morning to wait and see if they are appropriate candidates to have surgery later that same day. The hallway was always packed and many patients even brought gifts of fruits, thinking it would influence the medical team to operate on them.
JoAn Monaco, MD
A compelling photo that illustrates light bulb acid burns.

JoAn did her residency in Kansas City, which was a six year integrated plastic surgery residency. The integrated plastics surgery program enabled her to go straight from medical school into plastic surgery training, instead of doing the traditional general surgery or ENT residency before plastics. “The integrated program saved three years of time on my training, which made sense to me. After completing residency, I then came home to New York to do a one year aesthetic surgery fellowship at Lenox Hill Hospital.”

Dr. Monaco has traveled to the Dominican Republic to do cleft lip and palate repair on numerous children and teens in desperate need of these surgeries. Typically in the United States, cleft lips are repaired when children are infants. In the Dominican Republic, like so many other third world countries, it takes years for families to get hooked up with a mission team for a much needed surgery like this. Some of her patients were teenagers getting their lips repaired for the first time. She has also cared for many burn victims who never received treatment after a burn, which is crucial to maintaining full range of motion of hands, arms, the neck, etc. “It is common practice in the Dominican to place battery acid and coca cola syrup into a light bulb and do drive-by attacks where light bulbs are thrown on innocent teens. The battery acid would cause the burn and the coca cola syrup would make the acid stick to the skin. The light bulb would shatter into thousands of tiny shards, which penetrate the skin and allows the battery acid to worsen the burn while preventing anyone from trying to brush off the acid from the skin. It was devastating to see these victims who had burns of the face and neck to the point where they could not rotate their neck or hold their heads up straight. Teen girls would bring pictures of their beautiful faces and beg the mission team to help them look like themselves again. It is truly heart-breaking.”

JoAn has had some very close personal experiences with women affected by breast cancer which led to her involvement with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Foundation. She sponsored a team in the New York City Komen Race for the Cure and is part of the “Doctors for the Cure” initiative. She hopes to dedicate more of her practice to helping reconstruct women with breast cancer as her practice evolves.

JoAn Monaco, MD JoAn Monaco, MD
Dr. Monaco holding an 18 month old girl for whom she later performed a cleft lip repair. Dr. Monaco performing a cleft palate repair on a five year old boy.

JoAn Monaco, MD

JoAn Monaco, MD, MS
JoAn Monaco, MD, MS
Class of 1993 and 1994

How was a Lehigh education for you different than what you saw when you visited with us in the fall of 2011?

The campus was so impressive with so many new buildings. It seems like there are so many more students than when I was there. I was truly impressed by the new look of the campus but what I appreciated most was sitting down with my undergrad and graduate advisor, Dr. Neal Simon. He sat me down in his office, across from his still-messy desk, and we caught up on everything from the past decade about his work, his lovely wife, Sue and his kid’s accomplishments…. It’s great that the most important things never change as I wouldn’t be where I am today without having a mentor in Dr. Simon. I also reminded him how he refused to be my adviser, which gave us both a laugh.

Hands-on lab experience is a strong component of our curriculum today, both through our instructional lab classes, as well as individual research with faculty mentors. We know you were involved in research in Dr. Simon’s lab. Can you share how this had an influence on you – both while at Lehigh and later in medical school and in your career?

I think lab experience is tremendously important for critical thinking. I spent so much time in med school memorizing information for exams and this is a terrible way of learning and understanding. But, lab time is important for learning how to think, how to interpret results and how to crucially understand an experiment from start to finish. My research time was very worthwhile for learning how to read scientific journals and understand the elements of a quality study/ publication versus a poorly written article. At Lehigh, I gained the skills that I needed for my fellowship at the NIH where I worked in P3 security level labs on HIV viruses that were thousands of times more virulent than HIV found in blood. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to work with such infectious material if I didn’t have solid training from Dr. Simon at Lehigh. He also paired me with a couple of trauma surgeons from Lehigh Valley Hospital which sparked my interest in surgery while doing their cytokine research.

Looking back at your Lehigh career, is there any advice you can give to today’s generation of Lehigh students?

I really made the most of my time at Lehigh and I think that’s crucial for any Lehigh student. I spent a great deal of time doing community outreach work through my sorority as well as holding leadership roles on campus with various organizations. I fit in a French major with my science studies simply because it was fun and I spent a lot of fun weekends on the hill with my friends when I wasn’t bartending at the Ho. I look back to my time at Lehigh as great fun because I was learning a great deal from my classes and through my research and made a lifelong mentor and friends along the way. I found balance with trying to keep a high GPA with extra-curricular activities that med schools like to see. Now, being a business owner, I wish I had taken some business classes, which would have been helpful but, otherwise, I’m glad I spread myself thin while at Lehigh because I feel like I made the most of those years….I recommend that current Lehigh students make the most of their time as an undergrad, find balance while working on a high GPA if considering a graduate degree of some sort.

Is there any specific advice you can give our educators to better prepare their students for their careers?

I learned the most from smaller classes over those huge “Intro to Whatever Courses” because they permitted interaction with other students and professors in a way that shaped critical thinking. The professors who I still think of fondly had an open door policy with frequent office hours and always made themselves accessible to students, which was extremely worthwhile. When I toured the labs on my return visit, the same professors who always had their offices open for student visits still had their doors open a decade later. This was incredible to see.

  40 years of women at Lehigh University  


2012 Newsletter designed by Maria Brace
Department of Biological Sciences
Lehigh University