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Dr. Oakes — Determined to Make a Difference

"People tell me I am living the American Dream,” Robert Oakes, MD, muses, “and I guess I have to agree.”
Cardiothoracic surgeon Oakes, who joined the BryanLGH Heart Institute in 2011, was born in Reno, Nev., where his father, a mechanic, and his mother, a former migrant farm worker and later a casino porter, struggled to make ends meet. When he was 10, his parents separated and he and his father moved to Yuma, Ariz.

The youngest of five siblings, Dr. Oakes was the only one to graduate from high school.

After a busy day in the operating room at BryanLGH
Medical Center, Dr. Robert Oakes looks forward to
sharing time at home with Faye and their children,
Logan (left), Chase and Hunter.

He planned to be an auto mechanic, like his dad. “I enjoyed working on automobiles and I never thought of college, never took SATs or ACTs. I worked odd jobs, and it wasn’t until I took the exam to become a Marine that I realized I had potential for going to college,” he says. “I took automotive and engine rebuilding classes at the local community college and then started thinking I wanted to do something that meant more to me, and it seemed like medicine was the one area where it would really make a difference if I could do something great.”

Living with his father proved to be a significant influence on Dr. Oakes’ career choice. “My father was in ill health — my first significant interaction with medicine was through his hospitalizations and other medical care when I was growing up and caring for him.” And Dr. Oakes sees that certain aspects of being a mechanic transition into being a surgeon. “Part of being a good surgeon is having pride in craftsmanship. Seeing your finished product and saying to yourself, ‘You know, that’s really good quality,’” he says. “And I don’t think that everyone has that. If you don’t work with your hands, it is not part of your core and you don’t get the same gratification.”

To college and beyond

“I took a summer job doing research in a hospital in Salt Lake City, which resulted in shared publication of research in Science magazine, which was a really big deal, ” he said. This led to Dr. Oakes’ transfer to the University of Arizona in Tucson for premed studies, to Tokyo, Japan, to conduct research, and then on to his applying for medical school. “While I was at Arizona, I dreamed of succeeding in those old Northeast colleges, Ivy League schools like Johns Hopkins and Harvard and Yale. So I applied to them and was accepted at all of them.” Dr. Oakes believes selection committees were intrigued with his background and the out-of-the-ordinary path he had taken. Having chosen Harvard Medical School, he worked very hard to excel. “I had a good work ethic and cared about doing a good job — I think this gave me an advantage over my peers,” he says. Dr. Oakes not only graduated from the medical school at Harvard (2002) and completed a general surgery residency and cardiothoracic and cardiovascular surgery fellowships at Stanford University Medical Center (2009), he also was chief resident for general surgery at Stanford and for cardiac surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. Only 39, Dr. Oakes already has earned certification by the American Board of Surgery.

Choosing our community

Dr. Oakes interviewed all over the country — from California to Florida to Minnesota to Virginia — and determined that the best opportunity was here at BryanLGH Medical Center. “The hospital is great, the cardiothoracic surgery program is very strong, BryanLGH has a solid tradition, and the people here are very forward thinking and open to innovation,” he says. And, just as important, he and his family fell in love with Lincoln. With three little boys, ages 8, 4, and 3, the Oakes wanted to move away from large cities to a community that was more in tune with raising their family. Lincoln fit that bill with its college town atmosphere and perfect size. “There is so much for families to do here — even more so it seems than in Boston.”

Dr. Oakes’ wife, Faye, whom he met while at Harvard, is a marriage and family therapist who is enjoying staying home with their children and becoming involved in local activities. Though at the hospital a great deal, in his free time you may see Dr. Oakes running. “I just take off, day or night — put on my headlight and run — sometimes taking off at nine or 10 at night and finishing up at four in the morning.” In addition to ultra-endurance running, Dr. Oakes participates in Ironman Triathlons. Why? “It’s a challenge — something that you wonder if you can do or not — something that has a reasonable possibility of failure.”

Giving back

Dr. Oakes is a contributing author to the 2012 edition of a textbook used to train future cardiac surgeons, Cardiac Surgery in the Adult, by Lawrence Cohn, MD, former chief of cardiac surgery at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. This February, Dr. Oakes is spending two weeks in Rwanda, Africa, with Team Heart, a privately funded group staffed by Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is one of three cardiac surgeons on a team of 40 medical professionals who will provide free cardiac surgery to patients in that poverty stricken country. Ralph Morton Bolman, III, MD, organizer of Team Heart and chief of cardiac surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has been a mentor for Dr. Oakes in both cardiothoracic surgery and in humanitarian efforts. “Dr. Bolman has taught me that there are many different ways you can care for people, both by doing great things in cardiothoracic surgery and also sharing that expertise with those less fortunate,” says Dr. Oakes.

Future at BryanLGH

Dr. Oakes’ experience in advanced cardiothoracic surgical techniques at Harvard and Stanford will be beneficial to BryanLGH patients. New technologies and procedures include greater emphasis on valve repair instead of valve replacement; the ability to do aortic valve surgeries with increased safety; and more minimally invasive approaches to lung resections and cancer operations previously unavailable here. In addition, a bigger range of procedures will be possible with the newly acquired, upgraded DaVinci robot for minimally invasive surgery. “The goal of our practice is to expand beyond what is currently being offered in Lincoln — to have the full breadth of cardiothoracic surgery available to our patients so they don’t have to travel outside of Lincoln or the Midwest,” Dr. Oakes says. “My partner, Dr. Richard Thompson, and I, along with BryanLGH Heart Institute, are building the infrastructure to provide the highest quality and most innovative cardiac procedures to any person who comes through our door.”


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