Dr. Dawn Hui
Hitting All of the Right Notes with Heart
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran
Watch any medical drama, and it’s almost guaranteed that the heart surgeon is a feared prima donna. But that’s not how an actual cardiac surgeon sees it. “I haven’t watched that many medical dramas, but they are usually not at all realistic,” Dawn Hui, MD, Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery, UT Health San Antonio, says with a laugh. “I work at a teaching institution, so we work with residents, and it’s very interactive. We all get along, and we like to make sure that it’s a serious but very collegial environment.”
“The reality is with such a specialized field, you are often the person that has the most experience and knowledge about how our particular situation should be managed. But that doesn’t mean that you should act as if nobody has anything else valuable to say. I think having relationships with people where each person’s perspective and relative knowledge is understood, appreciated, and acknowledged is the best way to deal with those situations.”
A board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Hui’s focus is the treatment of adult cardiac diseases, including coronary artery disease, thoracic aortic disease, and cardiac valvular disease. Her clinical interests include clinical and technological innovations to find novel, better ways for treating cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Hui’s passion is to continually improve patients’ lives and outcomes through collaborative approaches to patient care and through community education on the prevention and treatment of heart disease. To assist with that effort, Dr. Hui is serving as President of the San Antonio Chapter of the American Heart Association.
“There’s a really great need for education to address the health disparities in San Antonio. And the American Heart Association (AHA) is a great organization to do that. Cardiovascular disease affects everybody in the United States. It’s the number one cause of death for both men and women. Even if you don’t have it personally, you very likely know a family member or friend affected by it,” she explains.
“AHA helps empower people to, through healthy living and education, understand how we can begin to change those facts and figures. There’s a special need in San Antonio. I see it on a daily basis.
“There’s a great need to address the health disparities in San Antonio. There’s a high prevalence of diabetes in the city. And people tend to come and get engaged in the healthcare system when their disease is much more advanced, so either they’re not receiving the right health education, or they do not realize that they have symptoms. Diabetes, in particular, masks the typical and well-known cardiac symptom of chest pain. Patients with diabetes tend not to have chest pain because of nerve damage, but even things like feeling tired or not being able to do your usual activity are important signs. I think people chalk it up to being out of shape or getting older, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
As she passionately explains AHA and delves into the importance of heart health, it’s hard to believe that being a cardiac surgeon wasn’t always her dream. A Plano, Texas, native who came to San Antonio in 2019, Dr. Hui is a graduate of The Juilliard School and was a violinist in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra before changing careers.
“Shortly after I got to Juilliard, looking at the people around me who were very committed to the arts, I realized that I wouldn’t personally find that satisfying as a career. I always had in the back of my mind that I might want to do medicine. My dad was an ER physician. He and I have very similar personalities and sensibilities, so I always thought I might want to do what he does.”
“He and my mom were great. They never pressured me to go in any particular direction. They always just told me to ‘do whatever you think will make you happy.’ A lot of my values come from them: the values of hard work and giving back to society and being grateful for all the blessings.”
A year in Hong Kong confirmed that a career in music was not what she wanted. Dr. Hui then obtained her medical degree and general surgery residency at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, followed by cardiothoracic surgical training at The University of Southern California. She is an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, also known as UT Health San Antonio, and serves as Associate Program Director of the Thoracic Surgery Residency program, and is the faculty advisor for the CT Surgery Interest group at the UT Health Long School of Medicine.
She credits her success to seeing things through to completion. “If I agree to do something or I commit to a project, I don’t drop it in the middle. I don’t give less than 100 percent, and that makes it hard. I’m going to have to learn to say no to things,” she laughs when questioned about how she fits it all in.
“I’m a very action-oriented person. I’m a very task-oriented person. What I’m learning to do more is sit down and take time to think things through and not just act for acting. Our world is so fast-paced. It’s like, post something on Twitter, post a TikTok video, do this, do that. Society’s really lost just sitting down and being contemplative about things. I think that helps with challenges: thinking before acting.”
“I believe in God, and one thing that’s really helped me when I think about taking care of patients is we are the works of his hands and to think of the work we do, the people I encounter all as the works of his hands, really grounds me and helps me to face what might seem like something daunting.”
She credits her husband Justin Wirpel, a principal partner at Isogent, an information technology services company, as one of her best stress management tools. “Talking to my husband helps a lot. We talk to each other about our work dilemmas or scenarios. He’s so smart. He also has an incredibly high emotional quotient, so I love talking to him.”
“I’m still trying to work life out. The path to success, however you define it, is often difficult. But there are many people in your life that can help you through it. If you persist, you succeed.”
“You can look at success on a daily level — did I accomplish my goals? – but in a broader sense, if you made somebody else’s life better – and that could be through many ways, whether it’s through surgery or whatever else people do – that’s how I would define it. At the end of the day, life is about people and treating them with kindness and passion.”
“When there’s a failure, my instinct is to look at myself: What did I do wrong? I think a successful person will look first within themselves and identify their own mistakes, but also look at all the other processes or factors that maybe led up to the failure. Sometimes we focus too much on the single event when a circumstance or other opportunities might be contributing. I think when you look to prevent future failures, you want a very global view of the whole thing. Identify the earlier steps that may have led to the terminal event.”
What does Dr. Hui recommend to maintain heart health?
“Exercise is the best thing someone can do. A more active lifestyle, number one, and if that can include exercise, that’s great. Some people have mobility issues, some people don’t have access to walkable trailways, [due to the pandemic], some people may be hesitant to go to the gym, but a more active lifestyle and a heart-healthy diet are essential.
“The most important thing is educating yourself about the signs and symptoms of heart disease. There are people who may have done everything right their whole life – eaten a healthy diet and exercised – but because of genetics or other factors that we still don’t understand, some people will still get heart disease. The good news is we have advanced treatments that can correct those things, but they really help if they are instituted early in the disease process and not when a lot of heart damage has already been done.”
Looking back at her journey from music to medicine, Dr. Hui would tell her younger self not to worry about which path to choose. “Everything’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be good. Everybody has anxiety, ‘What am I going to do? Am I making the right decision? Am I going to be happy? Is life going to be okay?