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Shriners Philanthropy Has Power to Bring Tears...Of Joy

Dr. Liao in exam room with male patient

Dr. Liao and his young patient are all smiles during a clinic visit

Shriners Children’s Boston Chief of Staff Eric Chien-Wei Liao, M.D., P.hD., has a ready answer when asked about his biggest surprise since becoming chief of staff in September 2021. “The large number of meetings on my schedule every day,” he laughed. “I am learning a lot and enjoying the opportunity to get to know staff across all departments. I view this position as continuing much of what I have already been doing at Shriners Children’s Boston – caring for patients, teaching others so they can become surgeons, and conducting research that can improve patient care. I am still doing all of that important work while expanding my administrative responsibilities.”

Born in Taiwan, Dr. Liao and his family moved to New York when he was ten years old. Dr. Liao was interested in science and medicine at a young age. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Stanford University’s co-terminal B.S. M.S. program, earning his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in biological science. Dr. Liao then attended the Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts Institute of Technology program in Health Science and Technology. He also completed a Ph.D. in genetics, studying blood stem cells.

Developing a Passion for Craniofacial Care

When asked how his interest in cleft lip and palate developed, Dr. Liao shared some advice he received. “Pick big problems to tackle in your career. Cleft lip and palate is the most common congenital anomaly in humans, so it is a big problem.” Dr. Liao’s mentors also encouraged him to pick a specialty he thought he would like that complemented his skill set.

“I really enjoy taking care of families and newborns with cleft lip and palate, because after the repair, the improvement is immediate – physically and functionally for the child and psychologically for the family. The family sees the result right away. You can follow babies as they grow and see the benefits of our team’s work over time. I also conduct research to understand the genetic basis of clefts. This knowledge can lead to better treatment and could help prevent clefts in the future,” he shared.

Experiencing Shriners Children's Boston As An Intern

Dr. Liao’s first experience with Shriners Children’s Boston was as a surgical intern. Part of this training was caring for acute burn patients. “Some of the patient charts I studied were like binders, they were so thick, a testament to the complexity of care over their lengthy hospitalizations. Here at Shriners we care for many children with acute burn injuries, which represent some of the most complex and devastating problems we treat in medicine. The long-term progress of these patients is inspiring and you could really understand their journey by looking at those binders and seeing how far they have come.” Dr. Liao noted that the mission of Shriners International made his internship meaningful. “Here it is really about the family and the unbelievable philanthropy that makes it all possible.”

Dr. Liao often meets parents before their baby is born after a confirmed cleft diagnosis. When he first talks with them, he conveys three key points. “I tell parents we will take great care of their baby and of them. I tell parents we have an entire team of medical professionals to support them from prenatal monitoring and delivery, to nutrition, surgery and child development. Finally, I assure parents we are very good at what we do here and our care is centered on their entire family.”

Treating Common Pediatric Plastic Surgery Conditions

In addition to cleft lip and palate, Shriners Children’s Boston treats children with common pediatric plastic surgery conditions. Because of the complex problems we treat in burns and cleft surgery, Dr. Liao explained, “We get very good at taking care of common conditions too. For example, every baby with cleft lip has a very asymmetric nose – so knowing how to make that nose look straight makes us very good at doing surgery to make anyone’s nose look straight. If we can create an ear for a child born without one, that makes us really good at helping children born with prominent ears. We perform a range of pediatric plastic surgery including gynecomastia and macromastia, scar revisions and pediatric hand surgery.”

One common condition that Dr. Liao sees is microtia, which is when a child is born with an underdeveloped ear. He described a recent interaction with a teenager and her mom. “They were thrilled at the prospect of having a surgically constructed ear and receiving care at our hospital.”

Advancing Transformative Research

Dr. Liao is also doing transformative research on cleft lip and palate, investigating its genetic basis as well as investigating other rare complex congenital conditions such as hemifacial macrosomia, a condition affecting the face where one side is not fully developed. His research team is studying the fundamental basis of how a face is formed, identifying the genes regulating that process, how cells form complex structures, and how those structures combine to form a face. “This knowledge will help us understand how, when genes or cells are disrupted, conditions such as cleft lip and palate result,” he stated.

Dr. Liao conducts these studies using models of craniofacial development, such as mice and zebrafish. “I have one of the largest aquariums in Boston with over 200,000 fish,” Dr. Liao noted. Mass General Brigham recently highlighted this research; the video can be viewed here.

The Power of the Shriners Philanthropy

At Shriners Children’s, all care is provided regardless of families’ ability to pay or insurance status. “This is the power of the Shriners philanthropy. I have seen our patients and their families cry tears of joy after cleft surgery and other procedures that will significantly improve the quality of their lives,” Dr. Liao recounts.

The mission of the Shriners philanthropy has inspired Dr. Liao so deeply that he decided to join the fraternity himself. “I am early in this process and want to learn all I can about Shriners and contribute to the philanthropy that is the foundation of the international effort and the mission of the hospital,” he said.

Dr. Liao in exam room with female cleft patient

Caring for children with cleft lip and palate throughout their childhood

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