He's been called a "Medical Maverick" and "the Crusader"
As a 13-year-old, he fled homeland Cuba and Fidel Castro's persecution. He and his family arrived homeless on the rough streets of Chicago. He grieved when gang members later murdered his brother on those heartless city streets.
Today Dr. Juan Asensio uses his past and its lessons to change the future — for troubled kids as well as the tens of thousands of patients he's touched as a world-renowned trauma surgeon.
"When you grow up in poverty it gives you a different perspective on life," he said. "Poverty is the worst disease I know. You grow up with a different sense of reality and sensibilities if you don't know where your next meal is going to come from."
Juan A. Asensio, MD, FACS, FCCM, FRCS (England), KM, steps into his new role as trauma medical director at Alegent Creighton University Medical Center on August 1 when CUMC's Level I Trauma Center begins 24/7 trauma coverage.
Why Omaha for a trauma surgeon who's worked all over the country and lectured all over the world?
"One thing I have tried to do is be at places where you can make a contribution in terms of making absolutely sure that fellow Americans have equal access to healthcare and particularly trauma care," he said. "You want to be on the side of trying to build things. It's not what you take. It's what you leave behind. The only way you can live sort of eternally — because we all have to meet our Maker — is what you share and what you've taught other people."
And Dr. Asensio has taught a lot of people. His area of focused study and expertise is Difficult Injuries and Difficult Problems in Trauma Surgery. His main interests are cardiovascular, thoracic complex abdominal and vascular injuries. He has a staggering total of 525 publications including peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and 15 books. Some of his studies have become accepted standards in surgery. An academic trauma surgeon his entire career, he has lectured extensively nationally and internationally in Europe, North, Central and South America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand and has been an invited Visiting Professor at many prestigious institutions. He's a member of more than 75 professional societies. He's written textbooks on trauma surgery.
He said he brings to CUMC "the expertise of having worked in some very challenging environments, in some very large trauma centers and also the experience of having worked internationally."
That's just a glimpse of who he is. He not only has battled the toughest life-threatening trauma cases, he's a one-man crusade, working feverishly for prevention. His passion and social conscience have been the subject of many documentaries and programs, including a CBS 60 Minutes story with Dan Rather, a two-hour documentary "Medical Maverick" about his life on the Discovery Health Channel, as well as another Discovery Channel special titled "Surgery Saved My Life – Battlefield Miami."
The soft-spoken surgeon – who routinely quotes intellectuals and leaders from Aristotle and Shakespeare to Oliver Wendell Holmes, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King — downplayed his 189-page single-spaced Curriculum Vitae, which includes many humanitarian awards. "My bio sketch was put together by journalists. But it almost sounds like my grandmother did it. People in the media like it and I'm always embarassed because they think I'm the next best thing since rice and beans and that's not the case."
Many of his colleagues and supporters think he's extraordinary anyway; not everyone knows what drives him.
"I saw a lot of people get killed when I was a child in Castro's Revolution and I saw them get killed in the street," he explained. "And I thought the noblest thing I could do was to be in a profession that's dedicated to saving lives."
His brother's murder added urgency to his "calling." After serving in the Army, young Alfredo returned to Chicago. He was shot gangland style as he went to work one day – five gunshot wounds to the head.
"I figured the disease I struggled to cure – if you would, what I do – took away my brother's life. Maybe this was God's lesson to teach me how it feels to be on the other side. That was a very hard lesson but I hope I've mastered it. I don't know that I have completely but I do think about him all the time."
Today one of Dr. Asensio's passions is working with at-risk kids and trying to coax them out of a violent lifestyle. He's seen too many kids killing kids. So he gives them his strong medicine. He shows them the results of senseless street violence.
Dr. Asensio estimated he's spoken with more than 18,000 young people and hundreds of physicians and community leaders about the heartbreaking results of violence. Has he had any impact on the kids? "I hope that I have. There are a number of cases in which I know I have."
The trauma surgeon has been called a "chest-cracker and a blood vessel stitcher" who wants to get out his message of nonviolence. "Maybe we could get Americans motivated to actually be a little more American, a little more together, and maybe think about what we need to do."
A trauma center is hardly glamorous, he said. It's about real consequences but it also represents hope. "A university hospital is a very dynamic entity. It exists because it needs to reach out to serve a community and the people."
And trauma patients' needs are many: "We see interpersonal violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and people who are hemodynamically unstable and in profound shock...We see spousal abuse. Elderly abuse. We see healthcare disparities...What we do is very tough. We have to make life-and-death decisions and open someone's chest in literally seconds."
It's a "tremendous power" he takes seriously. "You talk about faith…all you really need to know to be a trauma surgeon in an operating room is to struggle to try and use the talents you have to save somebody's life. I'm always very, very careful when I say, 'I save somebody's life.' I don't. Somebody else far greater than us – God — puts that in your hands."
He sees the trauma surgeon as an artist. "You've got the painters. You've got the composers. You've got the people who write literature. But what do we do? We're really sculptors. We sculpt living tissue. We change it. We move it around. We take it out. We put it back in. The funny thing is that our sculptures do talk and they have feelings. It's a little bit different!"
How does one person accomplish all that he has, including being named as one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the U.S. and excelling in the Korean martial arts and scuba diving?
"I had nothing better to do and I was not going to stand around on the street corner, so I figure, I might as well do this," he joked. "Look – a lot of this comes from being hungry. A famous American baseball player Satchell Paige once said, 'Don't look back because they might be gaining on you.' That's exactly what my philosophy has been. I don't look back because they may be gaining on me. I try to look forward to the very best I can."
Occasionally, though, he does look back. When he was named an honorary fellow of the Chicago Surgical Society recently, Dr. Asensio ended his lecture by showing photographs of the city he knew while growing up. Photos captured cabs and garbage trucks like the ones he drove. They showed the store where he unloaded groceries and picked up garbage and cleaned toilets. He held up pictures of the Chicago Transit Authority, where he worked as a train conductor. And he talked about working as a laborer.
"I laid down railways underneath my medical school while my wealthy colleagues had the summer off. While they had a really good time, I was out there in the hot Chicago sun pounding those rails and replacing the rails that go under the academic facility of Rush Medical College."
In his lecture, he thanked all of his employers – and the halfway house where he and his family lived – for lessons learned.
"Every day, you've got to try to reach for something better and for something higher," he said, "rather than 'how many cars do I drive and how many jets do I own?' You have to reach for something better within your field. Right?"
He smiled when asked if his immigrant parents would be proud of him.
"If they are looking down from above, I believe they are. They were very humble people. They never had formal education even though they read a lot. They were laborers, factory workers.
"My father had a fourth grade education. The best job he ever got was cleaning the train stations in the city of Chicago subway system. He said, 'Son, do you know, you are going to be very successful if you come in to your university and your hospital and the president comes and seeks your advice. And then the cleaning guys can also sit down and have a cup of coffee with you.' He said 'the cleaning guys' because that's what he was. A janitor.
"My mother said, 'Do good' – I can translate it from Spanish – 'Do good and close your eyes. Do not look to whom you are extending your goodness.' It's the best way I can translate it. Do good and do it blindly. Do it for the sake of doing it.
"And so, my parents were pretty wise."
With a wise son who brings his expertise, talent and wisdom to Omaha, where he feels he can make a difference.