(Watch now: Surgeon Horacio Asbun, M.D., chief of Hepatobiliary and Pancreas Surgery at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute, shares how he maintains a healthy work-life balance and stays at the top of his game in the operating room. Video by Carol Higgins.)
Like many surgeons, Dr. Asbun spends a lot of time in the operating room, often under intense pressure. Many of his patients have pancreatic cancer or liver cancer, which can entail extremely challenging and complex surgeries. And he never loses sight of the fact that his patients are literally putting their life in his hands. Pressure? What pressure?
Given such potential for stress, how does Dr. Asbun maintain a healthy work-life balance and stay at the top of his game in the operating room? He says he does it by trying to be a "positive influence” with the people around him, living life to the fullest, and making time for three of the passions in his life – music, sports and yoga.
Music aids relaxation and focus in the operating room
“I’m very grateful for music,” says Dr. Asbun. “I feel music tells you things that cannot be expressed with words and, if you let it, music is there with you in the fun times, the sad times and the tough times. If you like to dance, music is dance. If you like to be intellectual, music is intellectual. If you like to meditate, music is meditation.”
Although he admits he can’t carry a tune or play a note on a musical instrument, Dr. Asbun loves listening to music and says he couldn’t imagine performing surgery without it because it helps him stay relaxed, yet focused.
“As long as it’s not disruptive, music definitely helps us keep a very amicable and relaxed environment within the operating room, which favors the patient,” Dr. Asbun says. “And when I say, ‘Please stop the music,’ and suddenly it’s quiet, everyone knows I need their attention because we have an urgent issue.”
Playing sports builds stamina to help withstand long surgeries
Dr. Asbun credits his passion for sports for giving him the focus and stamina to endure highly complex, hours-long surgeries. “Without any question, I like sports. I feel that they help me be better prepared physically and mentally for the long surgeries that I do.”
His favorite sport is skiing, which isn’t something one can do in Miami, but Dr. Asbun does spend a lot of free time riding around South Florida on his bike. It doesn’t matter what you do, he says, as long as you’re doing something. “I do believe that if you exercise regularly for a month – doing something you enjoy and not forcing yourself excessively – you will find that you have a need to continue exercising and it will become a part of your life.”
Dr. Asbun says he has learned a lot from his youngest son, Derek, who was a professional rugby player on the U.S. National Rugby Team and went on to play internationally at Oxford University, where he was named player of the year.
“Derek taught me about the importance of mental imagery, which he would use when preparing for a game,” says Dr. Asbun. He now applies the same technique when preparing for surgery, visualizing each and every step of the procedure and anticipating how he would respond to an unexpected occurrence.
His son has also been his coach in sports and has helped him “try to become a better sportsman,” Dr. Asbun says. “I cannot be half of what he wants me to be but he’s so encouraging and patient with me. He truly is a gift in my life.”
Practicing yoga helps with surgery’s physical and mental demands
Dr. Asbun says he has to be clear-headed and laser-focused during surgery to make sure everything is perfect for the patient. He has found that yoga, too, helps with the physical and mental demands of surgery.
“I do yoga on a regular basis,” Dr. Asbun says. “I may not enjoy it so much while doing it, because it’s a very particular type of yoga I do that’s pretty intense but, like with sports, it helps me be better prepared physically and mentally for my long surgeries. And the more you do it, the more you want to continue doing it.”
Working with his son ‘a gift’ he wants to enjoy as much as possible
Dr. Asbun has the distinction of being part of one of just a few father-son teams in the field of pancreatic cancer and liver cancer. His oldest son, Domenech Asbun, M.D., who wanted to be a doctor since he was a little child, is now a hepatobiliary, pancreas and foregut surgeon at Miami Cancer Institute, where he and his father collaborate on surgery, research and training other surgeons in the latest techniques.
“Having raised Domenech, I already knew what a quality person he was but I didn’t know how good a surgeon he is until we actually had an opportunity to operate together,” says the elder surgeon. “It was just fascinating for me, seeing him in the operating room and seeing the skills he has. And it was then that I realized life has given me another gift – to be able to work with my son – and it’s a gift I intend to enjoy as much as possible.”
Dr. Asbun is justifiably proud of both of his sons but takes only partial credit for their success. "I have talked about my two sons and how they are life’s gifts but it wouldn’t have been possible without their wonderful mother,” he says. “I’m extremely grateful that I met her and that she has helped us create two such wonderful and accomplished human beings.”
Balancing pursuit of innovation with concern for his patients
Throughout his career, Dr. Asbun says he has been guided by two principles. The first is a need to collaborate with people who are innovators. “I want to work with people who want to push the science but at the same time are conscious of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” he says.
It’s one of the reasons Dr. Asbun accepted the offer to come to Miami Cancer Institute from the Mayo Clinic, where he was chairman of general surgery. “No matter how promising a potential new therapy may be, in the end you want to make sure there’s no harm being done to the patient.”
The second principle is one that Dr. Asbun says has guided him since very early in his career. “I would never do any type of procedure on one of my patients that I wouldn’t be willing to do on a member of my own family,” he says. “This has allowed me to balance my pursuit of innovation with my commitment to doing what’s best for the patient. That’s something we always have to keep in mind.”
Even though he says it requires countless hours and extraordinary focus and dedication, Dr. Asbun feels “blessed” to be able to be a surgeon. “The fact that you can work with your hands and be able to help positively affect someone’s life, and that you can enjoy doing what you do, it really is a gift. It’s the reason why I became a physician.”