This Dallas surgeon is Peruvian of the year

This Dallas surgeon is Peruvian of the year
This Dallas surgeon is Peruvian of the year

On his way to becoming a heart surgeon and Peruvian of the Year, people doubted that someone like Dr. Aldo Rafael could do what he did. At every step he proved them wrong.

Rafael is a heart surgeon at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas and was recently named Peruvian of the year by his home country’s government. In a ceremony last month, Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented him with the award in recognition of his medical missions to Peru to provide life-saving heart treatment to underserved Peruvians.

Rafael grew up in a small farming village called Jauja – Junin in Peru that lacked any professionals, but his parents prided themselves on education and wanted to make sure he had an opportunity to do more than farm in the village. They arranged for him to get to the nearest school, which was a 30-minute bus ride from his hometown. While there, he excelled at school, establishing himself as the best student. In high school, he continued his academic success as a top student, allowing him to attend a university. Inspired by a health scare his father experienced years earlier, he decided he wanted to become a doctor. He would end up being the first ever doctor from his town.

Because he wanted a medical education, he needed to attend the National University of San Marcos, founded in 1551 and the oldest continuously operating university in America. He had to take the national exam together with around 40,000 other applicants for 100 places at the university to study medicine. He scored fifth in the country and went to Lima. He came second in his class for his medical education and set his sights on becoming a heart surgeon. He was told that people from the country couldn’t be heart surgeons, but he was out to prove them wrong. “If you don’t believe it, I will,” he says.

Rafael was influenced and eventually trained by Dr. Efrain Montesinos, a Peruvian surgeon who came to the United States on a Fulbright grant and practiced at the Cleveland Clinic. Montesinos began coming to Peru on medical missions and eventually established a heart surgery program at Dos de Mayo Hospital in Lima. Coincidentally, Rafael began his training at that time and became the first resident and graduate of the hospital’s cardiac surgery program. Montesinos served as a professional mentor to Rafael, showing him what it took to become a heart surgeon and the importance of giving back.

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Montesinos’ mission in Peru served patients from the 80 percent of the more than 33 million Peruvians who do not have health insurance and cannot pay for life-saving heart treatment. Rafael saw what it took to raise support, manage logistics and run operations at a young age, and a seed was planted that would blossom at Baylor Scott & White.

After his residency, he wanted to come to the United States for more training in the latest surgical techniques, but he struggled to get a student visa. Unfortunately, Montesinos tragically died of pancreatic cancer, so Rafael’s main channel to the US was gone. He was still learning English but managed to pass his board exams. He would receive responses from programs across the country, but could never secure a visa to come to the United States for an interview. After years of trying to travel to the states, he finally connected with the Cleveland Clinic, which let him do a phone interview for a heart transplant grant. Two Spanish-speaking doctors conducted the interview, and he was accepted into the program. With the position secured, he was able to obtain his visa and come to the United States

After completing his training in Cleveland, Dr. Gonzo Gonzalez approached Rafael about moving to Texas, where Gonzalez would become Chief of Cardiac Surgery and Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Baylor University Medical Center. Gonzalez wanted Rafael to join him at Baylor in Dallas, and he agreed.

He arrived in Dallas in 2013, but had not forgotten his desire to give back to his homeland. While working in heart and heart transplant surgery at Baylor University Medical Center, he developed a plan to take a team down to Peru to deliver the health care he knew so many people needed. In 2014, Rafael organized his first medical mission, called Salvando Corazones (Saving Hearts), to Peru. The team consists of other doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, residents, medical students and support staff. They fly to Lima, Peru and spend seven consecutive days performing three heart surgeries a day on patients who had traveled from all over the country (often having to sell their homes or livestock to get to Lima) and wait months for the surgery.

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Many operations involve valves that the mission receives donated from medical device companies. The team performs minimally invasive surgeries that are common in the United States but rare in Peru. Part of the mission is to train Peruvian surgical teams in the technique to expand their capacity. Rafael’s team introduced the first minimally invasive heart techniques to the country. The team also includes cardiologists who provide cardiac care and train the Peruvian doctors in follow-up cardiac care after the operations.

In April, Rafael and his team of professionals from Baylor will go on their 12th medical mission to Peru in the past nine years. As the team has grown, it has become a sought after opportunity around the hospital and the assignment has expanded to twice a year. The team has performed 150 life-saving operations since he started traveling to Peru.

As if his day job performing heart transplants and surgeries and medical missions wasn’t enough, Rafael also runs the Hispanic Cardiovascular Institute, a Baylor Scott & White Health initiative that seeks to understand how to connect with and provide care to the growing Hispanic population the population of Texas. “I really relate to the Hispanic population and how people have limitations here in Texas,” he says. “People have a language barrier and are afraid to express themselves.

Rafael did not submit his name to any list to be Peruvian of the Year, but as word of his work spread, he came to the attention of the Peruvian government. One day he received a call from the Peruvian consul to tell him that he had been named Peruvian of the Year. His parents traveled from Peru to see him receive the reward.

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Rafael knows he couldn’t do what he does without the support of his family, who give up being with dad for a few weeks every year so he can give back to his homeland. He had to work hard and overcome countless obstacles to be able to provide a life for himself and his family and give back to others, but he knows he is lucky to be in this position as well. Few people can literally give others a new life, and fewer still give that service away for free. “I know for myself what it is like to live without resources. I am lucky to be in this wonderful country that gave me the opportunity to give back to my country, he says. “Seeing patients smile, recover and walk away from the hospital is the best reward for me.”


Will Maddox

Will is a senior editor for D managing director magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He has written about healthcare…

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