Close to the heart: How ‘the people’ brought new heart surgeon to Sioux Falls

Aug. 9, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by Sanford Health. 

“It was the people.”

Dr. Octavio Pajaro was not looking to move to a new location. Yet, through a friend, he got a call one day saying a health system in Sioux Falls was looking for someone like him to join its team.

As a heart and lung surgeon who specializes in surgery for people with severe heart failure such as transplant and mechanical assist devices, there aren’t many doctors who can do what he does. So when the opportunity presented itself, he was intrigued – so much so that he started reading up about Sanford Health.

“My first trip to Sioux Falls was just to get a sense of the culture, but that single trip was enough to know it was the right place. The people were full of enthusiasm and kindness, and the talent and resources were there for the work I do,” said Pajaro, who is board certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery.

“I like challenges, but it was the people and the possibility of bringing new ways to help others to such a warm culture that helped me decide.”

In fact, after his first interview, he applied for his South Dakota medical license.

The heart of the Midwest

“Sioux Falls is a small community, and it’s hard to feel anonymous here. There is so much interconnection between everyone. That was very different and refreshing,” Pajaro explained.

“My wife and I love music. When Sanford Health found out, they connected us with the South Dakota Symphony. We were thrilled by the music  and how the conductor and the symphony musicians reach out to the community to teach and even showcase young composers in their concerts.”

It’s the subtleties that make the difference in life and for patients, he added.

“Showing you care, being present, listening to one another.”

The way to the heart

Pajaro said his father’s passion for his work started him on the path to becoming a doctor.

“I grew up in hospitals,” he explained. “My dad was a surgeon. We had a little town house right outside the hospital ER. Some of my earliest memories are riding my tricycle up the hill to the back of the emergency room to say hello to security or have a wheelchair race with my brother while my dad was operating.”

Most of all, he saw his dad’s joy, he said.

“Back then, there weren’t even pagers. But I remember one New Year’s Eve, we were at a party when he got a call. He was always excited to go to see a patient. He would come out of surgery at 4 or 5 a.m. smiling and ask if the party was still going on.”

Pajaro remembers the first time he felt that same joy and excitement.

“When I was in training, everything was about how hard you have to work and how long you have to train, but no one talked about how good it would feel to help someone in such a way that uses all of you to do it — your emotions, your intellect, your training and your physical stamina,” he explained. “There’s nothing like it — experiencing the gratitude of the patient and their family gets deep into your heart. Nothing beats sincere hugs at the end of a long day.”

Now, Pajaro is bringing his expertise here to South Dakota. He joins cardiothoracic surgeons Dr. Verlyn Nykamp and Dr. Keung Ung, adding more surgical care for heart failure patients.

“I am excited to bring what I offer, but I feel that I also have a lot to learn from my new colleagues. The heart team at Sanford Health has the foundation to do everything already: two extraordinary surgeons and a great surgical team. The level of expertise is very, very high,” he said.

“Ultimately, it is always us as a team working together to bring hope and save lives in the best way possible for every patient.”

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Close to the heart: How ‘the people’ brought new heart surgeon to Sioux Falls

There aren’t many surgeons who do what Dr. Octavio Pajaro does — and he wasn’t looking to move. The people of Sioux Falls and Sanford Health changed his mind.

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