Searcy doctor looks to the future of medicine

Originally Published April 28, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 26, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Dr. Miguel Aguinaga, a native of Spain, is a cardiothoracic surgeon in Searcy. Aguinaga attended medical school in Spain but knew he wanted to one day travel to the United States for further training. Now, he’s doing that and more, as Aguinaga’s experiences have led to piloting a surgical robot.

— Growing up in Spain and Switzerland, Miguel Aguinaga knew he’d one day become a doctor. But he never dreamed that within his lifetime, being a doctor would mean knowing how to pilot a surgical robot.

“This generation has had to adapt tremendously,” said Aguinaga, a cardiovascular surgeon who often uses the da Vinci robotic surgical system in his work. “Thirty years ago, you would train and essentially use that training to do the same or the rest of your professional career.”

But in the past 10 or 15 years, Aguinaga said, technology has progressed so rapidly that doctors are constantly soaking up more training to use more devices.

“We’re now able to do vascular aneurysm surgery through a tiny incision in the groin of a patient,” Aguinaga said with understandable wonder. “Some of our patients go home the next day. It’s incredible.”

Aguinaga’s awed take on the field of medicine developed at a young age. He had bad asthma as a kid, and his childhood doctor was often at the Aguinaga family home.

“I was 6 or 7 years old, and I remember thinking that I was going to be just like him,” Aguinaga said of Dr. Jattard. “He was a wonderful person, very hard working and very humble. He was a good friend to the family.”

Though Aguinaga was born in Madrid, his family moved to Switzerland when he was a toddler. The family returned to Spain when he was 17, and Aguinaga entered medical school. Unlike schools in the United States, students in Spain don’t go through premed and instead enter six years of medical school right away.

Although Aguinaga attended medical school in Spain, he knew that he one day wanted to travel to the United States for further training.

“We always thought in Spain that the American education system for medical studies was probably the best in the world,” Aguinaga said. “All our books were American books. When I wanted to pursue a career in surgery, I saw that [the U.S.] was way ahead in training.”

During a stint caring for post-op patients following cardiac surgery at a hospital in Madrid, Aguinaga realized he was interested in surgery.

“I started going into the operating room to watch procedures,” Aguinaga said. “I started to fall in love with it, but I had to start from scratch. Cardiac surgery would be nine more years of training.”

While still in medical school in Spain, Aguinaga met his wife, Patricia, an American citizen on vacation to visit family temporarily living in the region.

“We had an international courtship for a few years, and then we were married in my last year of residency in a fellowship in intensive care in Miami,” Aguinaga said.

The couple had a ceremony in Miami for her family, and another in Spain for his.

Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to New York City, where Aguinaga would work as an intern in cardiac surgery.

“Without a doubt, it was the toughest time in my training,” he said. “We would start rounds at 5 a.m., and you didn’t finish until 10 at night. You never sleep; you hardly saw your family for two years.”

It was during this time that the couple had their first daughter. Aguinaga’s schedule got better as he moved into a senior intern role, but it was never easy.

“It was rough,” Aguinaga said. “A lot of the guys went through divorces. It’s just hard.”

While in New York, Aguinaga was already hearing good things about the cardiac surgery program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. When a friend went to interview for a job at the hospital in Little Rock, he came back praising the virtues of the program.

“He said students were

getting good exposure to all

kinds of cardiac-surgery procedures,” Aguinaga said. “The

program was such that you

did cases very early on.”

Soon, Aguinaga moved his family to Little Rock so he could do his cardiothoracic surgery residency at UAMS. The family quickly fell in love with Arkansas.

“We just loved the nature and outdoors,” Aguinaga said. “Coming from New York, Little Rock was a wonderful smaller city. We loved the people and the Southern hospitality.”

After completing his training, a job came open in Fort Smith. Aguinaga would work there for two years as a cardiac surgeon before a position opened up at White County Medical Center in Searcy. Aguinaga took the job in 2003, and his family has been living in Searcy ever since.

“We were amazed at how wonderful the educational system is here in Searcy,” Aguinaga said. “We have several friends at church who actually have chosen to come to Searcy just for the public schools.”

With children now ranging in age from 10 to 23, Aguinaga stays busy at home and at work.

He now serves as a cardiothoracic surgeon at WCMC and as medical director at Advanced Care Hospital, a long-term care facility that has been open for the past six years.

“We have anywhere from 15 to 20 patients at Advanced Care,” Aguinaga said. “I typically have one day or so for patients to come into the office, and then two days blocked for surgeries, though we end up having to do cases every day.”

When Aguinaga is done with his work at WCMC, he runs to Advanced Care to do rounds, and some minor procedures.

“It’s busy, but we manage,” Aguinaga said.

As Aguinaga has taken on more training to adapt to new technologies in surgery, he has quickly become an early adopter of using the da Vinci robotic surgical system for cardiac and lung procedures.

“It’s a great tool that has been around for five to seven years, mostly [used] by gynecologists and urologists,” Aguinaga said.

Aguinaga was eager to be trained on the system when it came to WCMC more than a year ago. The system allows doctors to do more minimally invasive surgeries that can result in less pain, fewer complications and less blood loss for patients, Aguinaga said.

“We had been doing simple cases, but after a while we did our first operation with the robot where we removed a lobe of a lung,” Aguinaga said. “It was a big step up.”

Aguinaga said he found it very easy to train on the machine, but he had to travel out of state to find people to teach him. Aguinaga is currently the only doctor in Arkansas using the da Vinci system for lung procedures.

“I can’t really see why no one else is using this tool [for lung procedures],” Aguinaga said.

At age 53, Aguinaga has already seen many changes in medical technologies over his career, and he doesn’t expect them to slow down.

“I think we’re going to go less and less invasive with tinier incisions and fewer incisions,” Aguinaga said. “We’re going to see a tremendous amount of change in the next 10 or 15 years. We’ll be able to treat lung cancer less invasively. I can see being able to remove a cancer from the airway without having to do any surgery at all, just using special caths and energy to melt the cancer away.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or

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