Growing up in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, during the 1980’s, Raja Flores learned what “the mean streets” were all about. In a neighborhood where drugs and violence were commonplace, every day presented challenges and tough choices that could affect his chances of surviving to adulthood. Whenever he looks back on his childhood, he considers himself fortunate because his path led to medical school at Einstein and a promising career as a surgeon.
Dr. Raja FloresWhile he cannot recall any early influences on his decision to go into medicine, Dr. Flores credits his basketball coach from the neighborhood, Mike Williamson, with influencing him to stay in school. “Mike had grown up in the meatpacking district, too, pulling needles out of his brother’s arms,” explained Dr. Flores. “He taught us how to behave, confiscated weapons from our team members and was just a good male role model, a great influence.”
He continued, “I had to study in school, but it was a lot easier than loading trucks. There was never any pressure from my family to stay in school – my dad left when I was six, so it was only my mom and me, and she was just glad I wasn’t a drug dealer.
“The idea of being a doctor may have come from the violence I saw when I was growing up. Once, when we were playing basketball in the park, there was a kid who had been stabbed and we saw the incision on his abdomen and asked what happened. He said ‘I went to the hospital and they did something inside, and they closed me up.’ Here the kid is playing basketball again, so I wondered what they did to fix him. I figured that fixing a human being was better than fixing cars.”
Ultimately, Dr. Flores found cancer cells more interesting than carburetors. An outstanding surgeon, educator, and author of more than 150 publications, he is perhaps best known for a study that changed the surgical management of pleural mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. His study showed that removing only part of the pleural membrane was as effective in treating this disease as removing the entire lung. He also has done pioneering work in minimally invasive thoracic surgery for lung cancers, whereby diseased portions of a lung are removed through three small incisions rather than opening up the chest. These changes in surgical practice have led to more rapid recoveries and shorter hospital stays, while also improving surgical and recovery rates. In addition, Dr. Flores has vast experience in performing esophagectomies to diagnose and treat esophageal cancer.
During 2010, Dr. Flores was name to an endowed chair and as chief of thoracic surgery and director of the Thoracic Surgical Oncology Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center – only the latest in a remarkable series of achievements since he received his M.D. from Einstein in 1992. Since graduating, he has had appointments at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Cornell University Medical College.
Dr. Flores in the OROn the path to his medical career, Dr. Flores held a variety of jobs – as a doorman, in a deli, and loading trucks for UPS. “I realized I didn’t want to spend my life doing manual labor, he said, “although as a surgeon I get my hands dirty anyway.”
At Einstein, he credits surgeons Dr. Harry Delaney and Dr. Milton Gumbs as his most influential mentors and role models, and pediatric surgeon Dr. Scott Boley for opening his eyes to clinical investigation. “Working in his lab made research a passion for me and really sparked my research career.”
“Raja was always very bright and had lots of innate ability, but he didn’t always use it,” recalled Dr. Gumbs. “I guess that’s where I came in as a mentor – telling him ‘you can do better, you have to push yourself.’ And he did. By the time he graduated, he was ready to take on the world.
“He also had all of the social skills that were necessary for him to become an excellent physician. He listened to me more than my own son, who also is a surgeon. 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.”
Dr. Flores’ focus on thoracic surgery and on mesothelioma developed when he did a general surgery fellowship at Columbia. “I decided to do thoracic surgery because I liked dealing with the anatomy of the chest,” he said. “When I got to Brigham in Boston, my mentor was big on mesothelioma, so I did a lot of research on that. I found the disease interesting, but also the patients.”
He continued, “Many of them are blue-collar guys, insulators, asbestos workers, pipe fitters, shipyard workers. With my blue-collar background, I could identify with them and they could see that I knew how this disease was hitting them.
"When I looked at the people who I thought were good doctors, good surgeons, good mentors, I said 'I want to be like this guy.' And they were at Einstein."
-- Dr. Raja Flores“With this disease people have their backs against the wall. I like being the one to help them get through it, and in the cases where they can’t, I like working with their families to help them. Whenever someone is given a diagnosis of ‘You’re done, there’s nothing we can do,’ that’s when I really crank it up. That’s when I do whatever I can to try and change those odds.”
Dr. Flores makes clear that his work involves much more than surgical technique. “When you meet a patient, you have to connect to them on some personal level, to gain their trust, so they will let you do whatever is best for them. And that’s your job as a doctor, not just to treat the disease but to treat the patient.”
Looking back, he is grateful for the help he had along the way. “I had great mentors, and support, like the basketball coach who kept me off the street and off of drugs,” he recalled. “In high school there was the Higher Achievement Program, where I had a scholarship and a work-study program. Then I went to NYU on the Higher Education Opportunity Program, where Nilda Soto (now at Einstein) was a good mentor. Without the financial assistance provided by the NYU program, and the Regent’s scholarship at Einstein, I couldn’t have stayed in school.”
His gratitude has led him to give back, helping with Einstein’s long-term effort to increase the number of students who come from underrepresented groups in medicine. “We do an annual retreat and Raja is often part of the alumni panel, talking about his experiences at Einstein and reassuring new and continuing students that they also can be successful,” said Nilda I. Soto, assistant dean for diversity enhancement.
“Einstein was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Dr. Flores. “A huge part of my growth and the kind of doctor I am now developed when I was there. When I looked at the people who I thought were good doctors, good surgeons, good mentors, I said ‘I want to be like this guy.’ And they were at Einstein. I love that school.”
An experience during an elective at Einstein serves as a stark reminder that his life could have turned out quite differently: “When I was taking care of prison inmates at Riker’s Island, I was walking down a hallway and I heard ‘Hey, Raja,’ and it’s a kid that I had grown up with. I remembered the two of us hanging out together about ten years earlier and here he is behind bars. It made me appreciate how lucky I’ve been.”
Posted on: Friday, February 11, 2011