Dr. Omaida C. Velazquez Named Chair of Department of Surgery

Omaida C. Velazquez, M.D., professor of surgery, radiology, and biochemistry and molecular biology, and David Kimmelman Endowed Chair in Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, has been named Chair of the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, after a thorough search that reviewed the most talented leaders in the surgical field in the U.S.

For the past three years, Velazquez has served as the Executive Dean for Research, Research Education and Innovative Medicine, overseeing the efforts of hundreds of investigators who are working to unlock the mysteries of biomedical science.

“Omaida is an outstanding clinical surgeon who, at the same time, brings an extraordinary academic talent as a researcher and educator,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School of Medicine and CEO of UHealth. “At every step of her career, she has always delivered at the highest level — as valedictorian of her medical school, throughout her training at the University of Pennsylvania, and thereafter as Miller School of Medicine faculty and then Chief of the Vascular Surgery Division in the Department of Surgery, and with her grants that are ranked by her peers in the top percentile of her discipline.

“Omaida is taking on the leadership of a department that was transformed by the past chair, Dr. Alan S. Livingstone. Omaida will build on that foundation and make it the best department of surgery in the country. She is also the first ‘Surgeon-in-Chief’ for UHealth – the University of Miami Health System, a recognition not only of the maturation of our health system, but also of her extraordinary leadership. In partnership with Jackson Health System, Omaida’s department will contribute to elevating all departments of surgery in South Florida, to the benefit of our patients here and throughout the Americas.”

“Omaida is both a talented clinician and a wonderful human being,” said Joe Natoli, Interim Chief Operating Officer of UHealth and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance and CFO. “She treats patients and colleagues with extraordinary skill and deep compassion. It’s those attributes that will make her the next great leader of the Department of Surgery.”

Velazquez has served on the Miller School faculty since 2007, when Livingstone recruited her to the University of Miami from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where she was associate professor of surgery.

“At the time, our Division of Vascular Surgery was in disarray,” said Livingstone. “After a national search, I was able to recruit a young, enthusiastic, inspirational woman who I knew would become a national leader. Since Omaida’s arrival, she has fulfilled my every expectation and demonstrated that she is a true triple threat — a busy clinician, a sought-after educator and an NIH-funded researcher — which is something exceedingly uncommon in surgeons. After another national search, Omaida has once again emerged as the best candidate — this time to lead the Department of Surgery — and it makes me proud that I was the one with the foresight to bring her to our medical center. I have no doubt that she will do a wonderful job, as she always has in the past. I am confident and delighted to have her take the lead of our great department.”

“Dr. Velazquez brings an impressive combination of clinical, academic, research and leadership skills to this position,” said Carlos A. Migoya, President and CEO of Jackson Health System. “She is the right leader to take this team of highly skilled surgeons to new levels in achieving medical firsts and world-class medical care at Jackson Health System.”

Velazquez anticipates making important contributions to the field of surgery in her new position.

“Academic surgery in the United States is facing some significant challenges in its ability to promote education, to promote research, and to bring the latest technologies and innovations into the clinical arena for patients,” she said. “A chair of surgery has the ability to lead in a direction that overcomes those challenges, that turns the challenges into opportunities and inspires the next generation of surgeons.”

Velazquez’s clinical practice focuses on endovascular and other minimally invasive approaches in the surgical treatment of vascular diseases. She has extensive expertise in both open and endovascular repair of abdominal aortic aneurysms, open and endovascular treatments for carotid, mesenteric and renal stenosis, and novel treatments for critical limb ischemia.

For her, the real focus of medicine is the patient.

“Our patients are the reason why we are all here,” she said. “They are the reason why we train the next generation, why we do the research looking for the next cure or the next innovation in care. Our patients are the South Florida community and the extended communities of the Caribbean and the Americas. It is our responsibility to bring them state-of-the-art surgical care. They shouldn’t have to think about going to other health centers in the United States. They should be able to find centers of excellence for whatever illness they have, whether common or rare, right here at the University of Miami, within the Jackson Health System, or at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Such an alliance of primary and tertiary care with academic medicine is very powerful.”

As chair of surgery, Velazquez is one of the few women, and the only Hispanic woman, at a U.S. medical institution to hold that position.

“She is the first Hispanic woman to chair a U.S. department of surgery, and I am proud that 20 percent of our chairs at the Miller School of Medicine are women, twice what it was nine years ago when I joined the Miller School,” said Goldschmidt. “This is contrary to what the opportunities are for women at many other institutions. In fact, the Society of Surgical Chairs, a unit of the American College of Surgeons, reports that only 11 of its 177 members, including interim and acting chairs, are women.”

Velazquez’s current research focuses on further understanding and advancing new treatments for atherosclerosis, lower extremity arterial occlusive disease and diabetes-related wound healing defects. She is the Principal Investigator of an NIH-funded basic science laboratory that investigates endothelial cell biology, angiogenesis and vasculogenesis.

“Omaida is a highly intelligent, thoughtful and careful leader who never makes decisions hastily, and always puts the interests of her patients, students and faculty above her own,” said Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., Pharm.D., M.S., Professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Associate Director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute. “She is not only a nationally recognized surgeon, but also an accomplished discovery scientist and a terrific role model for our students and faculty alike. Despite her numerous accolades, Omaida is very humble and a team player. Under her leadership, our research enterprise has navigated very well and continued to grow, despite the difficult funding environment. Through her hard work and solid leadership, Omaida has gained the trust and admiration of both clinical and discovery scientists at the Miller School of Medicine. I am proud to be her collaborator and friend, and elated to now count her among my chair colleagues.”

Under Velazquez’s leadership, investigators across campus have seen the clinical research infrastructure enhanced, administrative processes de-mystified and interdepartmental communications increased.
“Omaida has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Miller School of Medicine since her arrival, making contributions as a clinician, researcher and administrator,” said John L. Bixby, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and neurological surgery, and Vice Provost for Research. “As Executive Dean, she has been a strong partner and a genuine advocate for clinical research, providing thoughtful guidance and support for the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and taking the lead in strengthening our research programs at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Her appointment as Chair of the Department of Surgery is a natural progression, and will take advantage of both her natural abilities and the skills she has honed at the Miller School.”

Velazquez says that advances in research and health care management are causing the traditional role of the surgeon to evolve in many ways.

“We have moved from the classic model of one-on-one care to a team approach,” she said. “Over the next decade, surgeons will be part of teams that lead advances in quality, advances in satisfaction and advances in population health management. I love the idea of being part of all that in a leadership role.”

Velazquez is a prodigious scholar who is the author of 20 book chapters and monographs, more than 100 juried or refereed journal articles or exhibitions, and nearly 100 exhibitions or abstracts. She has received 35 funded research grants. She sits on the editorial boards of three academic journals and serves as an external peer reviewer for 26 more. She belongs to numerous professional societies, including the American Surgical Association, an elite group composed of the nation’s most prominent surgeons from the leading academic medical institutions. Her more than 35 honors and awards include the Julius A. Mackie Distinguished Graduate Award, given earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania.

A native of rural Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Velazquez and her family emigrated to the U.S. during the Mariel exodus in 1980. When she arrived, Velazquez was 14 and spoke no English, yet she had dreamed of becoming a physician since she was a small girl. If the odds were somewhat long that she would be a renowned surgeon and department chair at a major medical school 35 years later, Velazquez countered them with her characteristic focus, quiet determination and good luck in finding teachers and mentors along the way who recognized her abilities and helped her along.

Velazquez’s family settled in Union City, New Jersey, then the second-largest Cuban settlement in the U.S. outside of Miami. A bilingual program at the local high school enabled her to start in the same grade she would have been enrolled in back in Cuba. A sympathetic physics teacher, Nadia Makar, steered her through extra English, math and science courses, including summer classes, and then to the Stevens Institute of Technology, where Velazquez, who initially majored in chemical engineering, continued to double up in science courses until she was qualified to transfer to pre-med.

Velazquez was accepted by New Jersey Medical School on a scholarship, graduating first in her class four years later. That was followed by an internship, residency, research fellowship and vascular surgery fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She joined the faculty at Penn — the first female vascular surgeon it had ever hired — in 1999.

Velazquez is married to Romulo M. Cuy, M.D., a pediatric anesthesiologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami (they matched together at Penn). They have two children, Jimmy, now 21 and a senior at Caltech majoring in electrical engineering, and Julia, now 8.

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