2020 Top Doctor: Daniel Velez, M.D.

Editorial StaffMarch 19, 2020
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Photography by Steve Craft
Photography by Steve Craft

Cardiovascular Surgery (Pediatric)

Med School/Year Graduated: Universidad Central del Caribe, 1995

Years in Practice: 15

What inspired you to specialize in the pediatric side of cardiovascular surgery?

As a medical student, I had the unique benefit of being able to witness an adult heart transplant operation. The experience really made a lifetime impression on me. Later, when I became a cardiac surgery resident, my first rotation was in pediatric cardiac surgery, and the very first case I was part of was a child’s heart transplant. I found it absolutely fascinating beyond words… Beyond this, I find I have a natural ability to connect with my young patients and their families.

What are the unique technical and etiological challenges of working with young hearts?

The challenges are near-endless. We reconstruct tiny heart structures, so you need everything from steady hands to a problem-solving mentality. No two patients are the same, and each case has its own complexities. In many ways, it helps to have an artistic skillset as well… in children, we are changing physiology, or the internal “plumbing,” of their hearts. It is much less pattern-specific, as it requires that we rebuild structures that need to continue growing with our patients’ little bodies.

Do you have any children of your own? How do you encourage heart-healthy habits in them?

Yes, I have two spirited daughters who are 19 and 16 years old. I encourage them both to explore healthy habits and integrate an exercise routine into their lifestyles. They certainly do a better job than I do!

You were part of the team that operated on the youngest patient in the world to receive a total artificial heart. How common is that today?

Only recently did the total artificial heart become available in a smaller size. This allowed us to use it in a 9-year-old patient. These devices prolong the time we have to find a patient a perfect [donor] heart. Implanting the device and consistently monitoring the patient helps surgery teams avoid needing to rush to find an organ for a patient, which may not be a perfect fit.

You went to medical school in Puerto Rico. What do you miss most about the island?

I miss the ability to drive by the ocean and walk the 16th-century cobblestone streets. Not to mention the local food and, overall, I miss my family. I do my best to maintain the Puerto Rican traditions alive here with my family in the States.

Name the best depiction of your field in TV or film that you’ve ever seen.

The 1991 film The Doctor. It follows a surgeon who changes his life perspective when he receives a cancer diagnosis and goes from being a surgeon to being a patient.

What are you watching on Netflix these days?

The Spanish series Unauthorized Living. It’s an interesting thriller about a businessman mobster who develops Alzheimer’s and tries to hide it while getting his affairs in order.

“If I wasn’t a doctor, I’d be…”

An architect. I would not want to move away from building, creating and designing – which I do now as a surgeon.

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