Just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962, a ship left the Port of Baltimore destined for Cuba. In its cargo holds was $53 million worth of medical supplies and food to be used in exchange for American military prisoners held by the Castro regime. The ship docked in Havana and was unloaded. But, in addition to the American military prisoners who boarded, the ship was forcibly filled with Cubans who were being evicted from their homes and sent into exile by the Castro government.
Among those exiled to the United States were Juan García’s grandfather and his newly married parents. Juan’s grandfather was a farmer with land that the government coveted. The family was prevented from bringing anything with them — no luggage, no photos — but Juan’s mother managed to escape with a single crucifix, which she buried in a purse stuffed with supplies for Juan’s 2-year-old sister. The family was brought to Florida and, after a brief period in Puerto Rico during which Juan was born, settled in Miami, where Juan grew up and went to college.
When Juan was first deciding whether to pursue his studies at Johns Hopkins in the graduate program where he is now a professor, it seemed too cold and remote — too far from the familiarity and family he loved. But during a visit to see the school, he found himself standing before the 10 ½-foot statue of Jesus under the dome in the Billings Administration Building, and he felt a calling. It was an echo, he believed, of that tiny crucifix his mother had brought with her to a foreign land.
It also reminded him of the shop his father owned in Florida, where he sold small religious statues. When a statue would break, it was young Juan’s job to fix it, embarking on ambitious restorations that involved super glue, wood putty and oil paints.
There is this remarkable moment, where I am the first person who gets the experience of seeing the patient as they were before.
Now, as director of the Facial Prosthetics Clinic that he founded, Juan's work is the restoration of living people — helping trauma victims, cancer patients and those born with congenital conditions. Today, he is building eyes, ears and other features that are so realistic that even family members can barely tell they aren't actually part of the patient's face. Painstakingly measured, cast in silicone, adjusted, shaped and painted by hand, Juan's prostheses can take up to a month to perfect. Then, attached with a system of magnets or advance adhesives, they are put in place and transform a person in an instant — making a face and filling both physical and emotional voids.
"There is this remarkable moment, where I am the first person who gets the experience of seeing the patient as they were before," Juan says. "And it comes about through a unique marriage of medicine and artistry. I am privileged to be able to provide and receive that gift to patients."
For years, Juan sculpted facial prostheses by hand, but now he is at the global forefront of 3-D design and printing. Working as director of the 3-D Printing and Visualization Facility at the Carnegie Center for Surgical Innovation, Juan can 3-D scan the unaffected side of a patient's face and develop a mirror image, which can then be digitally sculpted on the computer and 3-D printed down to a level of detail of 16 microns. For now, he still follows this up by making a wax duplicate, creating conventional molds to cast the prosthesis in silicone. By incorporating advanced 3-D workflows, however, Juan is poised to lead the charge into an increasingly digital future.
There are some patients who have lived for years with missing or deformed facial anatomy that makes them unwilling to leave the house, many missing noses, cheeks — some missing nearly half their face. Juan can make them feel whole, effectively creating fine art on a human canvas.
For people who have struggled with feeling like outcasts, Juan's work is medicine as powerful as anything found on that ship sent to Cuba years ago. It is also something more than medicine. It is healing that humanizes.