By JOSEPH SAPIA
Since leaving Asbury Park years ago, Dr. Joseph Agris has led an accomplished life: successful domestic plastic surgeon and “Dr. Angel” to many in foreign countries as a humanitarian.
Agris, 72, has been a plastic surgeon for 40 years. About 30 years ago, Agris, who has lived in the Houston area since the mid-1970s, began doing humanitarian work.
A “combination of things” led to this, including getting connected to Houston television personality Marvin Zindler. Zindler, who promoted charity work, and Agris, “over the years, we kind of hit it off,” the doctor said.
About 30 years ago, the two did a volunteer trip to Nicaragua and went on to visit almost 40 countries as a team until Zindler died six years ago at 85.
All the foreign work is reconstructive plastic surgery, about 50 percent because of burns, 20 to 30 percent because of birth defects and the rest the result of war injuries, traffic accidents and cancer.
Initially, Agris would do the charity work over a holiday or for short periods of, say, two weeks. Now, “I spend three to four months out of the year out of the country” doing the volunteer work, Agris said.
“Children first, birth to 18,” said Agris, speaking of who receives the volunteer care. “After that, it’s young people, they’re the future.
“It’s all donated,” he said. “Nobody on the team gets money.”
Over the years, the work of Agris and his fellow volunteers has translated to “millions of dollars,” he said.
“If we did more of this, maybe there would be less killing,” Agris said.
Much of this is recounted in his recently published book, “Tears on the Sand, an American doctor’s mission of mercy becomes the successful search for the world’s most wanted man.”
That man is accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, whom, the doctor says, he met through his humanitarian doctoring.
Agris “was at the same hospital” bin Laden’s wife was giving birth in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“All of the meetings were within a year four to five years ago,” Agris said.
They met at neutral locations and the meetings would last, perhaps, the entire evening. They would communicate through interpreters or Urdu, which Agris knew somewhat.
Agris, a Jew, and bin Laden, a Muslim, would talk about “religion, how we both saw the world,” Agris said.
What was bin Laden like?
“More like you were talking to a religious man,” Agris said.
Bin Laden was killed by the American military in a raid at his Abbottabad compound in 2011.
“I’ve never had trouble anyplace,” Agris said. “We have certain rules. Personal relationships, no. Religious, no. Politics, no.”
A native of Brooklyn near the old Dodgers baseball stadium, Ebbets Field, Agris’s father, Jacob, died on Thanksgiving Eve of a heart attack when Agris was 10. About four years later, his mother, Evelyn, moved him and his two brothers, Robert, now 71 and living in South Carolina, and Paul, now 70, to Asbury Park.
“I still consider that my hometown,” Agris said. “We lived on Fourth Avenue and, then, we lived on Seventh Avenue.”
He attended the Bond Street School and, in 1959, he graduated from Asbury Park High School, where he was on the varsity wrestling and track teams. He is a member of the high school’s Hall of Fame.
He worked at the saltwater pool in the north end of the city as a lifeguard and “cabana boy.”
“The tips were great,” Agris said.
His mother, Evelyn, married a neighbor, Len Rokaw. Evelyn Rokaw died in March 2010; Len Rokaw still lives in Asbury Park.
After Asbury Park High School, Agris studied engineering at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania. He got a dental degree from Temple University, although he never practiced dentistry. Then, he got his doctor of medicine from Albany Medical College and became a plastic surgeon.
In his private practice, Agris performs 70 to 80 percent cosmetic work, perhaps surgeries to the eyes, nose, face, neck, breasts, belly and thighs, along with liposuction. The rest of the work is reconstructive post-cancer or because of burns or traffic accident injuries.
Agris last visited Asbury Park a few months ago and is close to Len Rokaw.
“I’ve just had a fantastic life of meeting people,” Agris said.