While many physicians use algorithms alongside national medical guidelines to create a patient care plan, cancer specialists bend the rules and push the limits to try and manipulate the disease. Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM) alum Omar Llaguna, MD ’04, a surgical oncologist and chief of the Peritoneal Surface Malignancy program at Memorial Healthcare System in South Florida, will welcome our newest class of medical students at the RUSM White Coat Ceremony next month, encouraging them to become well-rounded leaders who will master skills in science and compassion.
“Their training will focus on becoming a physician — they will think logically, consider patient wellbeing and spend countless hours taking care of people they’ve never met before. But they need to take all those teachings and go beyond just the care of the patient; their job is more than just healing the sick. They need to go out into the community and become a part of the larger medical solution.”
Dr. Llaguna hopes to impart lessons he has taken to heart. An advocate for early intervention, he speaks at conferences and to various organizations about preventative cancer care. He shares his personal experience of caring for his father, whom he lost to rectal cancer, and how it inspired him to create nurturing relationships with patients.
Road to Surgery
Starting as a physical therapist, Dr. Llaguna itched for a more fulfilling healing role and considered specializing in family medicine or cardiology. His own preconceptions kept surgery off the table but quickly became a frontrunner once he witnessed the multi-disciplined collaboration. “All these specialty teams came together to figure out the best plan; sometimes they got a second chance to find a cure. You develop a relationship throughout the whole disease process — from the moment of diagnosis through treatment or surgery or sometimes palliative care or hospice. You are with them every step of the way.”
Dr. Llaguna treats patients with a variety of conditions including gastrointestinal cancers, melanoma, soft-tissue sarcomas and peritoneal malignancies. Besides his oncologist and chief role, he is also a faculty member for the general surgery residency training program at Memorial and assistant professor of surgery at Florida International University Wertheim College of Medicine. And he will soon lead a robotics surgery program to treat patients with pancreatic cancer.
Keep on Task
Though COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on preventative care and veered patients from their rigid surgical timeline, Dr. Llaguna recommends not delaying either. “Some are using this virus as an excuse to not get a screening or come in for their usual treatment. We need to be hypervigilant to do all the things we normally do so you don’t subject yourself to becoming a higher risk for cancers that can be cured and so you don’t deter from your care schedule. The death rate for COVID is very low compared to cancer.”
The father of three young daughters enjoys hitting the fitness trails and taste-testing various cuisine with his wife. While the global health crisis continues to alter routine processes, Dr. Llaguna believes the overall charge remains intact. “It’s a medical climate so things always change. There is a pandemic and there are social issues. But none of that is going to change one thing — patients get sick and then they need care. We are taught to take care of the sickest patients regardless of gender and creed; to stay empathetic and passionate. As long as we focus on that, we will always have a rewarding career. We must commit to our job as a healer.”
Dr. Llaguna will give the keynote address at RUSM’s Fall 2020 Virtual White Coat Ceremony on Friday, September 11, 2020 at 3:30 pm ET. The ceremony will be broadcast on RUSM’s Facebook and YouTube pages.