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    Remembering Salvva

    Battling the cancer that felled his grandmother lies at the heart of a legacy of giving back

    It all goes back to something his father taught him. Loosely translated from Lebanese, the message is "People's need for you is God's greatest gift to you." This philosophy sparked Dr. George Bitar's determination to raise money for a cause he feels passionately about — and that recently resulted in the plastic surgeon being named the National Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Man of the Year. Dr. Bitar was integral in the Society's record-breaking 2006 campaign to raise money for blood cancer research. The approximately $150,000 he raised — with the help of his staff, family, patients and friends — earned him top male honors in a campaign that raised $5.8 million nationwide.

    Most importantly, it made Dr. Bitar feel he was doing something to try to put at bay the cancers that had felled his grandmother, a cousin and a friend with whom he had served a cosmetic surgery fellowship.

    His grandmother died when Dr. Bitar's Lebanese-born mother was two years old. The lymphoma that claimed her life was something that people did not openly discuss at the time.

    "It was not until my mother was an adult that her father told her the real reason her mother died," he recalls. "Back then, cancer was something people were ashamed to say they had. In the last 50 years, the perception of cancer has gone from something shameful to something to tackle."

    LET'S PARTY The National Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's 10-week annual campaign is held in the U.S. as a 42-city competition. Each city drive yields a top man and top woman fundraiser. The two individuals garnering the most contributions among all those in competing cities are crowned the Society's national man and woman of the year.

    In brainstorming fundraising ideas, Dr. Bitar's hallmarks were creativity and fun. To reach his impressive goal, Dr. Bitar, who had helped with the society's fundraising in Washington D.C. for the preceding three years, conceived of six major fundraising events. At two events, christened "Days of Beauty" and held at his three-office practice in Northern Virginia, he invited people in for a day of cosmetic surgery talks and medspa treatments. Attendees received a discounted rate for skin care and other nonsurgical services they elected to have, with a portion of the proceeds earmarked for the Society. He also garnered support from other organizations that pitched in for prizes that he then raffled off at the Days of Beauty events.

    Dr. Bitar went on to host gala fundraisers at Bloomingdales, the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington D.C. and other venues.

    "In order to maximize the yield, you have to do different things," Dr. Bitar explains.

    Throughout the campaign, not only did he raise money, but he realized his tandem goal of raising awareness of the blood cancer diseases. Gannett's USA Today newspaper showcased Dr. Bitar and his cause. Smiling pictures of him as the charity's D.C. Man of the Year beamed from the sides of metro buses. He even appeared on the television soap opera Days of Our Lives as himself, being recognized for his Man of the Year status in the script by a character who has multiple myeloma.

    Dr. Bitar puts similar passion into both his professional and family lives. In a serendipitous twist, Dr. Bitar learned he'd won the national award only days after his July 2006 wedding in Beirut, Lebanon, to Rima Khalaf, an electrical engineer pursuing her Ph.D. at UCLA.

    REARED TO APPRECIATE Growing up in Lebanon meant witnessing the atrocities of war. A youthful George would accompany his father, John, a pediatrician, on his hospital rounds tending children. "I saw a lot of injured people," he recalls. "When you're young, you don't have a great perspective on what you want to be, specifically. But I knew I wanted to be a doctor and wanted to help people. I wanted to fix things with my hands." The desire to help — coupled with Dr. Bitar's passion for art — made plastic surgery a perfect path.

    "Because I'm an artist before being a doctor, I enjoy putting my artistic talents — as well as my enjoyment of dealing with people and making them happy — into creating appealing cosmetic outcomes," he says. "I think cosmetic surgery is basically a venue of making people happy. I love helping people change their lives," he says.

    "I believe I've been given a lot in life," Dr. Bitar smiles. "And when you're given a lot, you have a duty to give back."

    Lisette Hilton
    Lisette Hilton is a writer in Boca Raton, Fla., who heads up her company, Words Come Alive.