Gener Augustin


Age: 34
Occupation: Vascular Surgeon
Resides: Hickory, NC
Family: Edward Dressler

How would you describe your profession?
I'm a surgeon who treats patients with blood vessel blockages or abnormalities such as aneurysms, both in the arteries and the veins. I work to help clear up those blockages everywhere in the body – the blood vessels in the arms, the legs, the abdomen, the neck – everywhere except for the brain and the heart. I treat patients who have pain or lack of blood flow in what we call an “end organs.” Stroke would be an example of “end organ damage” to the brain.  Patients can have pain in the arms or legs because they can't get enough blood flow. We’re sometimes called the plumber of the body. We clean out blockages – the tubing or the piping being the blood vessels or the lymphatics. We treat aneurysms with open surgeries or stents and balloons. That's what I take care of, and that's what I treat surgically.

What inspired you to get involved in vascular surgery?
I was really interested in diabetes care. My uncle was a diabetic, and I took care of him before he passed. He was on dialysis, and dialysis was a big part of his life. One of his doctors was a vascular surgeon, and the vascular surgeon is the one who created a fistula for him which helped him get dialyzed.

When I got into medical school, I really wanted to pursue a field that incorporated all of medicine.

A lot of specialties are very focused, because medicine is complicated. Orthopedic surgeons focus on the bones, neurosurgeons focus on the brain or the spine. I wanted to be part of a specialty that was all-encompassing. Vascular surgeons touch every part of the body and work with most all organ systems, whether it's cardiac issues, diabetes, endocrine, wounds, renal disease… and it’s because blood affects every organ system. We deal with every organ system. So being a vascular surgeon means keeping abreast on many disciplines in medicine.

What’s it like being a practicing surgeon?
It's about the patient. It's about seeing the patient in the clinic who has had leg pain for three, four, five years and has undergone multiple surgeries for a musculoskeletal, bone, or nerve problem but still has pain. It’s when you can say, "I know what your problem is, and I can fix it." It’s about seeing success when they come back to your office and they're walking around (if they're women, they're in heels) saying, "I can walk again." Or when they see you they say "I love you" because their symptoms are relieved.

I think it's incredibly rewarding, because what we do is very unique. A lot of people don't know what vascular surgeons do or how to recognize vascular disease. Still, nothing is more rewarding than a grateful patient. It’s the single most rewarding part of my job. It makes it very easy to get up in the morning and very easy to come into work when you can say to someone, "You have a problem, you've been suffering from it, and I can fix it for you."

Where are you from?
I am originally from South Florida. My parents are immigrants from Haiti, and they came to the US in the 1980s. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where most of my family is. Because my parents are from Haiti, I speak fluent Creole and I like the food and the culture. My parents were very hard working and, like most people who come to this country, seeking a better life. They really drove in education in us. My mother always said, “You can be rich today, poor tomorrow, but your education is yours forever, and no one can take that away from you.” That was really instilled in our family.

My father's a minister, a pastor of a church, so I grew up in the church. I have four other siblings, three sisters and a brother. I'm the middle child. We've all always worked really hard to strive to do our best. There was a lot of involvement in the church and the community. I took care of a lot of sick patients with my mom because she was a nurse assistant and she sort of dragged me along with her. I realized that making people feel better was incredibly rewarding.

When you graduated high school, were you already on track to medical school?
Initially, I thought I was going to be a journalist. I also wanted to work in healthcare policy from working with my mother. She used to work with a lot of disabled patients, and I remember watching how some healthcare providers interacted with those patients and it was really disheartening for me. A lot of them had no clue that they were being mistreated, and I found that to be infuriating. I thought, "I'm going into healthcare policy, and I'm going to change the way disabled patients are treated." I was going to go into journalism to try to expose some of these problems. I was headed to Washington to try to change the world.

Walk us through your path to getting here.
I went to University of Rochester, which is a private school in Rochester, New York. I went there for undergraduate four years. It was a huge change from Florida, right? My God, I mean, what was I thinking? I majored in journalism and thought I was going to be the next Anderson Cooper. But I did take some pre-med courses so if I decided to go that way I'd have it. I minored in chemistry. Then I decided to teach high school for a couple of years. I was a high school teacher right after college in Davie, Florida, which is one of the cities near South Florida. I taught Chemistry, English II and IV, Pre-calculus, Algebra, and Biology for a little bit. Then I decided to go to medical school and went back to Rochester because Rochester is phenomenal, especially for medicine.

Rochester's huge on family medicine, so I thought I was going to be a family medicine doctor. I wanted to go into primary care. During my time at Rochester, I met a vascular surgeon who sort of blew me away and convinced me to come hang out with him and his crew. They later decided to fund me to do research at Harvard for a couple of years, so I did research in vascular surgery and diabetic wound healing. I came back to Rochester and finished my medical school training. I applied for residency in vascular surgery and got into the program at Case Western in Cleveland. I did that for five years and then took the job here.

Doing research at Harvard was a big detour right in the middle of medical school. How did that change your perspective when you went back?
I think it assured me that surgery was what I wanted to do. It’s so funny, because before going to Harvard I could not handle cutting the skin. I would just pass out, get nauseous. But the vascular surgeons there were such amazing people. I wanted to be them, because they were having so much fun doing what they did. One of my mentors, Dr. Frank LoGerfo, used to tell me, "Gener, you can become a vascular surgeon or spend your whole life wishing you had." I’d think to myself, “I want to be like you but I can't cut into the skin.” When I came back to medical school and did my clinicals, my first rotation was surgery. I thought I was going to pass out from hyperventilating after walking into the operating room. But when I watched the first case—cut into the skin, sutured it back together, I realized, "There's nowhere else in the world I want to be. This is awesome."

You could have chosen to practice medicine anywhere. What made you decide to come to Catawba County?
First of all, my two partners, Dr. Christopher Griggs and Dr. Lindsay Bools, are phenomenal. It's so important to be at a place where you love the people you work with and you trust them and you can hang out with them outside of work. When I interviewed with them, they clearly had a commitment to making Catawba County a healthy county and ensuring the patients here have access to great care. Unlike when I interviewed at other places, that stuck out to me. They called and joked with me on the phone, and I liked that. When I came here to interview and met the people at Catawba, I was blown away by how kind the people here are. I've never met kinder people than the folks in Catawba, never in my entire life.

The patients I met here were so inspiring and so grateful. It reminded me of why I went to medical school. In training you can get so bogged down with the work hours, the rigorous workload, the surgeries, complex patients, deaths and complications, that you sort of forget why you're doing medicine. When I interviewed here and met the people here, it just reminded me of when I was in high school. It reminded me of the patients I saw with my mom, which is the reason I went into medicine.

You know, there's prestige in medicine. There's notoriety. Those things are important if it's what you want, and I thought that's what I wanted. But when I came here, I was reminded that I went into medicine to make people better. We all can't go to these elite academic institutions, but every community deserves good doctors. I joined Dr. Bools and Dr. Griggs to ensure that patients here had access to the best vascular surgery care they can receive.

Being new to the community, have you felt as supported in the community as you have at the hospital?
Absolutely. I spend most of my time in the hospital, and the people in the hospital are the people in the community. That’s actually what makes it very different. We hang out outside the hospital. The folks in the OR, the folks in the cath lab, my staff in the office are second to none. Every day I tell my husband, "Sometimes I think I'm going to wake up out of a dream." The people here are incredible. We have had cases where folks came off their vacation to help ensure I succeeded with a case. I mean, who does that?

It’s the same in the community. I remember going to the department store Ross and seeing a piece of furniture I had to have. I said, "Oh, I really want it, but I don't have a pickup truck and it's too large for my car.” I had just moved here. The cashier said, "Well, I'll move it for you on my lunch break. I’ll take it to your house." I looked at my husband in disbelief and I said, "We are never leaving Catawba."

People here are incredible and they are so good natured. People have their stereotypes of what life is like in the South, and they're just wrong. I've never met better people than I have in Catawba. Same with the hospital system. It just makes it so easy to get up in the morning, because the people here are wonderful.

You mentioned you are newly married. How did you and your husband meet?
We actually met online. Funny story. My husband is an IT computer geek. Super nerdy. I mean, he's fantastic. He's the best thing that ever happened to me. Online dating is this thing that we do now. It's no longer taboo. He came up with an algorithm, because this is what he does. He had a profile and he set up a program that would find him his matches on these sites. It's unbelievable when I think about it. Well, I was part of his match, and the more he clicked, the higher up he would go on my profile. Finally I caved, and was like, who is this kid? That’s how we met. Family is important to him, which is important to me. He’s quirky, he's funny, and he's exactly who I need. I tell people I'm his algorithm.

How has the adjustment to living here been for you as a couple?
Oh, he loves it here. When we interviewed here, I think I still had four more interviews at other places. Back at the hotel after our interview, he looked at me and said, "We're moving to Catawba." I said, "Wait a minute. We have four more interviews. We can't put all of our eggs in one basket." He said, "You can continue your interview process if you like. This is where we're moving." He loves it here.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
We’re foodies, and we like eating different things. We’ll spend a day going from Asheville to Charlotte and finding ice cream parlors, because we’re always on this hunt for good ice cream. If we’re looking for Thai food, we’ll find a couple Thai places and just hop around. We like to eat, which is such a bad habit, and we like to cook. We also like to hike. When we have some free time we like to go to Triple Falls or Asheville.

How do you see your future? What do you envision out ahead of you at this point?
Probably leadership, when I think about it. If I go back to why I wanted to do medicine, it was to change healthcare policy, change the way patients are treated and really advocate for them. You can do that on a small scale in your own community. I think moving forward I want to get into leadership positions, whether it's in a hospital or in this community, to really impact patients and people in a more global way. I think the more you move up, the more influence you have, the more you can bring effective change to people. Not just in my clinic but in the hospital, in the community, and in the county.

I never want to stop operating, so it would be dual role. Lots of surgeons do that. For me it’s about being able to do what I love to do every single day. I never want to leave medicine.

When it comes to leading change, do you see yourself doing that here?
The leadership at every level, whether it's the CEO, the president of our medical group, the senior partner in my group, the nursing staff leadership, they're just phenomenal and really supportive. I see myself growing into a leadership position to bring effective change and new technology more globally to the patients I take care of here. One of the technologies I brought here most recently is the TCAR procedure, which is a minimally invasive way of treating carotid disease. We usually treat it with open surgery, and this new therapy came out about two years ago and is really taking the United States by storm.

During my residency, my chairman was part of the trial in this country that brought this procedure to light. Before I left training, I told him, "I really hope I can bring this to Hickory." And he said, "Don't be discouraged if it doesn't happen right away, because a lot of hospitals across the country aren't doing it. The accrediting process can take several years." When I came here and said to the vascular team, "I want to do TCAR," they were like, "Let's do it. Let's talk about how we can get it for you.”  Unreal! In my first year of practice out of training, Catawba let me do my first TCAR. After I did my first procedure, I texted the folks in Cleveland, "I just did my first TCAR! They let me do it here!" They were surprised but quite pleased. When it comes to a new procedure or practice, the stakeholders, the administration, the leadership, they’re really open-minded.  They do their own research, of course, they interview people, they find out how it works in different institutions. And if the evidence is there, it’s always, “Why not? And how can we help you?”

This is the best place I've ever worked. I don't regret it a single day because the leadership here is always trying to bring the best care. They think the way I do: “Why not? Why can't the patients at Catawba get the best care in the country?”

 

Interviewed on 8/14/19