Doctors in Penn Medicine’s Division of Plastic Surgery recently performed their 5,000th free flap reconstructive surgery — in which tissue is taken from another part of the body and used to improve the appearance of a wound or scar. Focusing on breast reconstructions, as well as head and neck surgeries and leg surgeries, Penn has become the largest free flap reconstruction center in the United States by volume.

Their milestone will be the focus of a presentation at the 96th Annual American Association of Plastic Surgeons Meeting in Austin, Texas, in which they will educate leaders from other institutions on the process of building a free flap program.

“This achievement really speaks to how much we’ve grown in this area over the last 10 years,” said Joseph Serletti, MD, Chief of Plastic Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Women undergoing a mastectomy are faced with several options for reconstruction, whether they’ve had breast cancer or have decided to undergo the procedure preventatively if they are, for instance, at a high risk of developing the disease due to family history or being carriers of the BRCA gene mutations. The free flap procedure, while a longer and more complex surgery than alternatives, gives patients a more natural appearance and has been shown to help avoid infection. Patients with cancer usually wait until their chemotherapy and/or radiation is completed before undergoing reconstruction, while those who are undergoing mastectomy as a preventive measure may have both surgeries at once.