Raja Michael Flores, M.D., professor and chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, specializes in surgical treatments for mesothelioma and emphasizes patient relations. He believes that as a doctor it’s his job “not just to treat the disease but to treat the patient.”
From a young age Flores was fascinated with the idea of “fixing a human being.” He first studied malignant mesothelioma during his residency because his mentor was interested in the rare cancer. He immediately took to the subject and found his niche.
Fast Fact: Dr. Flores was inspired to specialize in mesothelioma after receiving mentorship from a mesothelioma specialist during his residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Not only was he intrigued by the disease, he also easily related to mesothelioma patients.
“Many of them are blue-collar guys, insulators, asbestos workers, pipe fitters, shipyard workers,” he said. “With my blue-collar background, I could identify with them and they could see that I knew how this disease was hitting them.”
His passion to help people has constantly led him to take on new research endeavors, and his study of pleural mesothelioma has changed the way the disease is treated.
One of his concerns is the use of a pneumonectomy to treat mesothelioma, in which an entire lung is removed. “When you lose a lung,” he said, “you’re losing a lot of quality of life.”
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In one major study, Flores showed that mesothelioma could be treated effectively by removing part of the pleural membrane, a finding that has had a significant impact on patient prognosis and quality of life.
Flores also established the VATS lobectomy procedure. In this minimally invasive thoracic surgery, diseased portions of a lung are removed using only three small incisions, a less severe alternative to completely opening the chest cavity. In his initial studies, he proved the effectiveness of VATS lobectomy as compared to the standard thoracotomy. His system had equal survival rates while creating fewer complications and leading to faster recovery rates.
Throughout his practice Flores keeps his focus on individual patient care. Milton Gumbs, M.D., one of Flores’ most influential mentors, is proud to recommend Flores.
I’ve referred patients to him over the years, and they all love him because he sits with them, and makes them feel at home.
Possibly the most important aspect for some patients is that Flores loves a challenge and won’t give up. “Whenever someone is given a diagnosis of ‘You’re done, there’s nothing we can do,’ that’s when I really crank it up,” he said. “That’s when I do whatever I can to try and change those odds.”
Getting hit in the head repeatedly and having your arms, chest and stomach pummeled isn’t exactly the typical preparation or recommended training for becoming a doctor.
It just worked for Raja Flores, M.D.
Flores didn’t become the renowned thoracic surgeon he is today only from the experience he received at Brigham and Women’s Hospital-Harvard. Or from his residency at Presbyterian Medical Center-Columbia. Or even from the work he did early in his career at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
There was training of a different kind that molded him.
It was the education he received in the boxing ring – and his early upbringing – that helped make Flores so resilient, so determined and so popular today with malignant mesothelioma patients. He learned to relate.
Flores knows what it’s like to be backed into a corner, battling to stay on his feet. His nose was broken a few times.
At the end of the day, patients just want to feel like you did everything you possibly could, that you didn’t leave any stone unturned, in trying to help them. They want to know you give it everything you have. And I do. This is not a job for me. It’s a calling.
Flores, 45, became chief of thoracic surgery in 2010 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. The hospital isn’t far from where Flores grew up in a mostly Hispanic, not-so-affluent neighborhood near the meat-packing district in Manhattan.
He grew up poor, raised mostly by a single mother. She pleaded with him daily to avoid the pitfalls and temptations all around him. He was fortunate that to be born with a strong will, a kind heart and an aptitude for school.
Boxing – and the training it required at the gym every day – became his outlet, a way to avoid the punks and the bullies and the label of a school nerd. It was an excuse to avoid the drinking and drugs that became so common in his neighborhood.
“Boxing gave me some street cred but without having to do drugs or hang out,” Flores said. “It was a way for me to stay clean, and avoid getting picked on because you liked books. In a lot of ways, the boxing really shaped who I am today.”
Even while in medical school and surgical training, Flores boxed, although he was mindful of his hands, his future livelihood in the operating room. He hasn’t boxed in years, but he still puts on the gloves in the basement of his home, where the speed bag and the heavy bag take a pounding.
I just don’t like getting hit in the head anymore. My nose has been broken enough. Mostly now, it’s just a way to wind down, to take out frustrations, a workout.
The eye-hand coordination he honed in boxing became useful as a surgeon. So did his perseverance, and a belief in himself.
He actually became a pretty good boxer, too, rising through the amateur ranks. It taught him lessons that he takes into surgery every time, and it gave him an every-man approach to his bedside manner.
He feels for the mesothelioma patient who is looking at long odds.
“At the clinic when you’re seeing patients all day, it can be an emotional rollercoaster,” Flores said. “I see some of my patients, ones who are struggling, and just wonder, ‘Where is the justice here?’ And that comes home with me. I can handle pain pretty well myself. What I can’t handle is if I should have been able to help someone, and couldn’t.”
Flores rarely ventured far from home, a reminder of his roots. He graduated from New York University, received his Master’s Degree from Columbia in Upper Manhattan. He attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He returned to Columbia as a resident before taking a research fellowship in Boston at Brigham and Women’s.
He came back to the city as a surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He takes his children to the old neighborhood so they know where and how he grew up. He tells them about the guys who grew up around him and what became of them, the policeman, the soldier, the two who went to jail. And of the few who died too young on the streets.
“For me, going into medicine seemed natural. I liked helping people. When I was young and saw someone get hurt, I always wanted to help them,” he said. “I thought I’d become a trauma surgeon, gunshot and stab wounds. Then cancer just intrigued me. It was patients and their families. It needed technical skills, but people skills, too.”
In mesothelioma patients, he saw people who deserved help. They were victims of the asbestos industry, of people and corporations that knew the damage asbestos would cause.
“I was always the little guy getting picked on. These mesothelioma patients have been backed into a corner and have this feeling there is nothing else they can do,” he said. “I just want to help them get through it. You want to prolong their survival and improve their life, but you also have to be able to tell them, when enough is enough. They understand you can’t fix everything, but they deserve to know you tried your very best.”
Flores has contributed to 22 scholarly articles that discuss mesothelioma. These articles, which have been featured in journals such as Clinical Lung Cancer and Current Treatment Options of Oncology,explore emergent surgical approaches to mesothelioma treatment, individualized therapy and protein biomarkers that indicate the cancer’s presence.
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