"Medical Maverick" With International Repute
by Jill Spotz
n University Hospital’s surgical ICU eight residents watch intently as an animated Juan A. Asensio, MD, demonstrates how individuals similar to the patient in room E-441 can develop the syndrome of effort thrombosis of the axillosubclavian vein (Paget-Schroetter’s syndrome). As his arms sweep forward and back in Tai Kwon Do movements, he demonstrates how athletes typically develop this vascular problem as a result of vigorous activity. You would never guess that he has not slept in the past 24 hours. As an academic surgeon, his allegiance is not only to his patients but to his residents, students and fellows. After being on-call the night before, Asensio still makes time to teach and review patient charts on rounds with the surgical residents. “It is remarkable with how little knowledge a doctor can practice medicine. If you want to be the best of the best you have to read,” he quotes 19th century distinguished physician Sir William Osler. One of the residents pulls a notepad out of her lab coat and writes “Osler.”
Asensio’s office on the mezzanine level of the hospital paints a similar picture of the personality of the animated teacher and physician. There are myriads of organized piles of research papers, drafts of textbook chapters, stacks of papers and books, yet you will never see an award or degree
displayed. It is not because he has not received them. In fact he has been honored numerous times by dignitaries and
presidents. The most recent award — the Gold Medal of the Mutua Scientific and Philanthropic Foundation of Madrid — was
presented by the king and queen of Spain for his work on difficult injuries and problems in trauma surgery, research,
philanthropy and stance on human rights. As the
professor and chief of the division of clinical research in
trauma surgery at UMDNJ-University Hospital (UH), Asensio says receiving the medal was a humbling experience, considering the company included Drs. Robert Gallo and Luc Montaigner —the discoverers of AIDS — and Dr. Thomas Starzl, a pioneer
Asensio also received word that he is being considered to become a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. This secular order of the Vatican grants knighthood based on an individual’s humanitarian and scientific efforts. Asensio was nominated by the cardinals of Los Angeles, San Antonio and Miami for his work on human rights issues and trauma prevention. He believes his profession does not end with surgically dealing with his patients’ injuries but with educating them as to why they got there in the first place. “The trauma center is a direct mirror of the problems we face as a society,” he explains. “Violence, alcohol, drugs, and irresponsibility with vehicles are all social problems that come through our doors that need to be addressed. Trauma surgeons witness countless injuries and deaths caused by social ills and have seen how anger as a result of racism and discrimination, disease and poverty, lack of education and equal opportunity expresses itself in violence. As trauma surgeons, we should use our positions of leadership to help influence change in our society.”
Bishops and royalty are not the first to take notice of Asensio and his work. Producers from television shows and journalists have known there was a story there for years. When Asensio was featured on the CBS show “60 Minutes” in 2001, Dan Rather himself flew to Los Angeles to conduct the interview. The surgeon recently finished taping a two-part series for the Discovery Health Channel, appropriately called “Medical Maverick,” which aired in February. Filmed for more than 18 months in Los Angeles, Chicago and several other cities in Illinois, New York City, Miami and at UH in Newark, the show focused on Asensio’s work and personal mission to walk beyond the halls of academia and serve as a leader in the human rights arena.
Asensio became involved with difficult injuries and problems in trauma surgery and outcomes-oriented research because it demands surgical skills and constant education. He is specifically interested in cardiovascular, thoracic and complex abdominal and peripheral vascular injuries. “Difficult injuries and the complex surgical procedures required to correct them motivate and challenge me,” he explains. “I am not only in the service of surgery but of reconstructing lives and families.” Asensio’s approach stems from his personal experiences. As the son of parents who fought in the revolution in Cuba and then rebelled against it, he knows what it is like to be poor. Growing up in Havana, Asensio and his family yearned for freedom. They moved to the U.S. when he was 13, and he grew up on the tough streets of Chicago. He says that he faced all the problems that he sees his patients face today, an experience that motivates him to always give back to the community and to the U.S.
The “super-specialist” previously worked at Los Angeles County Hospital, the largest trauma center in the U.S., and the University of Southern California (USC). While there, Asensio went to inner-city high schools and youth centers with a graphic presentation of injuries managed by trauma surgeons to encourage students to embrace education and avoid gangs and violence. His presentation included a heart-wrenching testimonial from a former patient — Maria Reyes — and her husband, who were both gang members. Ms. Reyes was shot multiple times by rival gang members. She discussed how she changed her life with Asensio’s help after recuperating from more than 20 surgical procedures which he performed. Asensio feels that this type of outreach represents the level of social conscience that doctors need, and continues this type of work at UH. “Violence is not just a physical problem,” he explains. “It is a social problem that we as physicians can help to prevent.” To this day he has personally spoken to more than 15,000 youths at risk.
Asensio personally overcame the cycle of poverty in his neighborhood and fought against threats from gang members who attempted to recruit him. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois where he competed in baseball and wrestling and was part of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity. He obtained his medical degree from Rush Medical College and finished his surgical residency at Northwestern University. Asensio completed fellowships in trauma surgery and surgical critical care at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center and Parkland Memorial Hospital. He has trained 97 international scholars from 32 countries.With so many achievements to his name, Asensio makes sure to credit his peers as well. When asked about his experience at UH, Asensio, true to his nature explains:“My colleagues in trauma surgery here at University Hospital are all surgeons’ surgeons. To work with individuals of such great merit is a tremendous asset.”
Asensio’s respect for his colleagues carries over to his students. As he finishes making rounds with the ICU residents, they fittingly end in front of room E-446. Inside is the young man whom Asensio worked feverishly to save the night before. He listens intently as the residents discuss the patient’s progress and the plan of care. “I believe I have been given these gifts to make a difference,” he tells them. “You are in a position to do the same.”