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Meet Dr. Barry Rubin, Medical Director at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. He’s a celebrated vascular surgeon, a champion of innovation and a visionary leader dedicated to honouring the legacy of his mentor, Peter Munk
Ask Dr. Barry Rubin about the future of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, and it quickly becomes clear he has big plans. As the institution's visionary Medical Director and Chair, Dr. Rubin is dedicated to helping the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre become the world's leading cardiovascular centre in all aspects, from patient care to technology to research.
But spend a few minutes speaking with Dr. Rubin about his unrelenting drive toward excellence, and it also becomes clear where he gets his vision. The answer is simple, says Dr. Rubin – from Peter Munk.
He speaks with fond reflection about the man he considers one of his most important mentors.
"I realize how integrated Peter's thinking has become in the way we run the heart centre," Dr. Rubin says. "Peter was phenomenal at identifying elements of proposals that resonated with him. He could see the long-term value in particular things."
One time, for example, Dr. Rubin says he was explaining how sensors can be used to probe deep into arteries – a concept that immediately intrigued the mining titan.
"Peter was fascinated. He said, 'That's exactly the kind of technology we're using to go deep into our mines.' He made the connection instantly and he understood how you can apply a technology or an idea to look at a completely different issue," Dr. Rubin says.
In both his broader thinking about heart disease and his day-to-day work running the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Dr. Rubin says he thinks constantly of the legacy of his mentor. He and his colleagues have organized the centre to ensure that everything, from fundraising to research to clinical care, meet the standards that were set by Peter Munk.
"A big part of what we do to honour Peter's legacy is delivering on the promises we made to him on how we would improve the lives of patients with heart and blood vessel disease," he says. "Peter wanted us to build this centre to generate new knowledge that would translate everywhere around the world."
As the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre's top administrator and leading visionary, Dr. Rubin is determined to see Mr. Munk's vision come to fruition. And while world-leading excellence might seem like a lofty goal, it's an ambition in line with a vascular surgeon who's made striving to be the best a priority throughout his career.
Intense and incisive
In an institution and a field of medicine that is dominated by titans, Dr. Rubin seems to stand taller than most. "One of the giants" is how one colleague referred to him.
He's one of only two Canadians to be named a Wylie Scholar, which is awarded to vascular surgeon-scientists in North America who have demonstrated promise for innovative research. His research has been funded continuously by CIHR (Canadian Institute for Health Research) for the last 19 years. And under his leadership, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre has become a world leader in the diagnosis, care and treatment of cardiovascular disease, attracting the best in surgical and research talent from around the globe.
Beyond the centre, he's involved in several other healthcare industry organizations. For example, he's served as Chair and CEO of the Mount Sinai Hospital University Health Network Academic Medical Organization since 2003 – an organization that supports teaching, research and innovation by doctors at these hospitals. He's also the elected representative of more than 7,000 academic physicians for an initiative funded by the Ministry of Health that is designed to ensure that teaching hospitals train enough physicians to meet the healthcare needs of Ontario's growing and aging population.
Dr. Rubin's peers describe him as driven, focused, intense and incisive.
"I'm so glad that Barry Rubin is leading the [Peter Munk Cardiac Centre]," says Dr. Victor Dzau, a cardiologist and president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. Dr. Dzau is also chair of the external board that reviews research proposals for the centre.
"The vision that he developed and Mr. Munk endorsed is transformative," says Dr. Dzau. "He knows how to assure success by creating goals and setting targets. He clearly wants to take the centre to the highest level – and that's good for Toronto, it's good for Canada and it's good for the world."
Dr. Richard Reznick is dean of health sciences at Queen's University in Kingston.
He says he and Dr. Rubin have been colleagues for years, both as surgeons and as co-members of the Ontario Medical Association panel that negotiates doctors' fees with the Ontario government.
"He's so dedicated," Dr. Reznick says of his long-time friend. Dr. Reznick says he appreciates that he never has to wonder if it's a good time to call Dr. Rubin or not when there's a work problem to discuss.
"We talk more often on Saturday evenings than we do on Monday afternoons," Dr. Reznick says.
"What strikes me most though is how he is so meticulous. I guess that's not unusual for a surgeon, but with Barry you always know where you stand. He knows the facts and cuts to the chase."
Dr. Reznick adds: "If he were not a vascular surgeon, I think he would have made a great criminal lawyer."
Journey to the operating room
Dr. Rubin says he ended up in vascular surgery via a slight detour.
Born and raised in Montreal, he did his undergraduate work at McGill University, originally studying physics and physiology. Nobody in his family was in medicine, he says, and he didn't necessarily think it would be the right fit for him.
"I did not have a burning desire to be a doctor," says Dr. Rubin. "But after undergrad, a lot of my friends were going to medical school. I saw what happened to a lot of people in business, and medicine intrigued me then."
After graduating from McGill Medical School, Dr. Rubin came to Toronto to intern, expecting to stay for a year.
"I was young and naïve," he says. "I had no idea of how hard it was to get into surgery in Toronto."
Fortunately for him, Dr. Rubin's natural talent with the scalpel gave him a leg up. He remembers working at Mount Sinai Hospital with one of his mentors, the late Dr. Robert Ginsberg. A thoracic surgeon, Dr. Ginsberg was a former Surgeon-in-Chief at Mount Sinai and a former Chief Surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. One evening, Dr. Rubin resuscitated two patients in the same inpatient ward room who had both gone into cardiac arrest at the same time.
The next day, he had a meeting scheduled with Dr. Ginsberg and the Chief Resident in thoracic surgery at the hospital.
"Dr. Ginsberg asked the Chief Resident, 'Is this guy any good?'" Dr. Rubin recalls.
"He said, 'Well, he saved two of your patients last night.' Dr. Ginsberg [asked me], 'So, what do you want to do?' I babbled out the word surgery, and here we are."
One foot in the surgery world
Although he now devotes most of his time to the leadership and administration of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Dr. Rubin likes to keep one foot in the vascular surgery world. He's repaired arteries and veins as one of the country's leading vascular surgeons for more than two decades, and it's clear that patient care is still, well, close to his heart.
He remembers being called upon to operate on a 14-month-old girl who had an aneurysm.
"We think she was the youngest patient ever to have this type of surgery," he says.
A couple of months ago, this same patient turned up in his clinic, now an 18-year-old. She was sitting down, so Dr. Rubin asked her to stand up.
"She was a baby when we fixed her," he says. "And I said to her, 'Now you're taller than I am.'"
Although not all surgery is successful, Dr. Rubin says it's moments like these that can be so rewarding.
"There is no feeling like performing surgery on someone and then later seeing them walk out of the hospital with their family," he says.
Sharon Ungerman experienced Dr. Rubin's surgical skills first-hand last year, when she underwent a successful aortic bypass performed by him.
"I just can't say enough about him," says the Toronto resident, who first saw Dr. Rubin seven years earlier about severe pain in her left leg. "It took a while to warm up to him, but I knew I was in good hands. He followed through with me all the way."
Ms. Ungerman says what she appreciates most about Dr. Rubin is how focused he is on putting the patient's care before everything else.
"In recovery, he visited me every day, including weekends," she says. "I had thought of him as a suit-and-tie-and-white-shirt kind of guy, yet he showed up on the weekend in a baseball cap. I almost didn't recognize him."
She was so moved by Dr. Rubin's care that she donated to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.
"I have donated to causes before, but never on this level. But I'm glad I did," Ms. Ungerman says. "Thanks to him, I don't have to look back. I can look forward."
A champion of innovation
While his work with patients is important to him, Dr. Rubin says he gets a "different satisfaction from working on healthcare policy that will impact the lives of thousands of people, and from research that might affect the lives of millions."
As Medical Director at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Dr. Rubin leads a staff of more than 1,000 people, who see some 163,000 patients a year. A tireless supporter of the institution's top-notch researchers, he also created the centre's Innovation Committee – a panel that evaluates and reviews the pioneering research proposals that may lead to new breakthroughs in treating heart disease. The funding comes from donors, who have entrusted the Innovation Committee to direct the funds to projects appropriately.
The Innovation Committee, chaired by cardiologist Dr. Harry Rakowski since 2012, is made up of more than a dozen members. This includes nurses, doctors and hospital administrators, as well as a CEO of a major corporation and real estate developers.
It is sometimes referred to as the Dragons' Den of healthcare innovation (referring to the CBC TV show where entrepreneurs pitch to venture capitalists). The committee reviews submissions from staff seeking research grants every quarter, spending $1-million per year on projects it considers promising.
Of all the research projects currently brewing at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Dr. Rubin is perhaps most passionate about the new Digital Cardiovascular Health Platform. It's a database that consolidates all the health information about every patient the centre sees, from those who come for routine checkups to the 12,000 people who undergo heart or blood vessel procedures every year. (You can read more about the digital health platform on page 24.)
"I'm tremendously excited about how we're generating a personalized approach to patients with heart or blood vessel disease. You'll be able to press a button and have 95 per cent of the information we need about a patient come up instantly. It will save time and be more accurate," he says. "That's cool stuff."
Dedication in the DNA
Though unfailingly dedicated to his job, Dr. Rubin spends as much time outside work with his family as he can. When it comes to interests, he lists "family and vacations" as top pursuits.
Dr. Rubin says Penny, his wife of 28 years, is "an honorary doctor" because she has had to listen to him talk about his work so much. His kids, Chelsea, Blake and Shelby, all in their 20s, used to repeat the names of operations when they overheard his work talk as children. But they have no interest in medical careers themselves, he says.
"Given the hours they saw me come home late, working nights and weekends, I think that went into their decision."
So why does he work so hard? "It's in my DNA. I like things to be perfect," Dr. Rubin says.
He's so dedicated that years ago, he gave up one of his few outside hobbies, karate. He had studied the martial art for seven years and achieved a second-level brown belt. But one day during a sparring match, he punched an opponent in the face (who had a full face protector on) and broke a knuckle.
"I thought it wouldn't be good to be a surgeon with mangled hands," he says.
In reflecting back on his career, Dr. Rubin again cites Peter Munk. He shares one of the lessons learned from his mentor: "He said we should be bold, but to also use a gift that is recognized by everyone, but frequently underused: moral integrity."
And when asked what he hopes his legacy will be as a surgeon and hospital administrator at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Dr. Rubin pauses.
"I hope it will be that I gave every single ounce that was available to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre to make it the best that it could possibly be; that I left no stone unturned and paid attention to detail. I hope people will say that I made a difference."