JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
For the first time in six decades, the director of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston is a federal government civilian employee. Dr. Leopoldo “Lee” Cancio, M.D., FACS, a retired Army colonel assigned to the USAISR Burn Center in 1995 until he retired in 2014, was appointed as director Nov. 17.
“I’m very grateful to be in this position,” Cancio said. “I’ve made this organization my life’s work, my life’s vocation. I’m very happy to do this type of work and take care of patients with people whose company I enjoy and who share the same vision that I do.”
Cancio joined the Burn Center as a major and had several titles including surgeon, chief of burn study branch, chief of clinical division (renamed burn center director), and deputy for medical operations and development.
Before his assignment to the Burn Center, Cancio was the regimental surgeon during combat operations with the 82nd Airborne Division in Panama in 1989 and during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Cancio also deployed to Iraq three times while assigned to the Burn Center and after his second deployment was selected for a fellowship in surgical critical care in 2006 at Brooke Army Medical Center.
“Then I started a new task area called Combat Critical Care Engineering,” Cancio added.
During that time, Cancio also served as acting director – twice while on active duty and during the last few months while the director, Col. (Dr.) Booker King was on deployment. King is scheduled to transfer in the spring or early summer 2018 to Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., to create a surgical program where he’ll serve as the subject matter expert in trauma critical care.
“You couldn’t be in better hands,” King said. “His contributions to the USAISR have been tremendous. He has the experience, wisdom and judgment to take this burn center to the next level.”
Cancio chose to come back to the Burn Center as a civilian because he wanted to continue working in a high-volume burn center such as this one.
“This burn center is somewhat unusual in the number of patients we admit annually – it’s on the high side,” Cancio said. “This work is not easy and I want to take care of the people who take care of our patients.”
Cancio is aware that he has some challenges ahead, but said that he’s going to do his best to make the burn center a rewarding place to work.
“First of all, we need to ensure that we have adequate staff, particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of nursing,” he said. “We need to promote the idea that working in the burn center requires a unique resiliency. We need to make this a fulfilling place to work so that people feel supported in their efforts.”
As a physician and researcher, Cancio wants to ensure that the research and clinical staff are better integrated and communicate more among themselves. He believes that this is the “magic” that will advance burn care.
“When clinicians are able to take their problems to the lab, so that the lab can work out solutions to those problems and the lab can take those solutions back to the bedside to implement them, then that’s the surest way to rapid advancement in medical care,” Cancio added. “Although it may be magical, it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires effort, hard work, time and understanding for people to achieve working together.”
Cancio firmly believes that a cohesive team like the multi-disciplinary team at the Burn Center is the key to providing patients with the best care.
“We have a non-standard way of delivering health care in our burn center. You won’t find a team like this on rounds in many other places.” Cancio said. “First of all, we need to celebrate that, and we need to understand how to make it better.
“We need to understand our communication styles, we need to improve our coaching styles, we need to increase our emotional intelligence, we need to build not just competent individuals, but effective teams. If we’re going to lead the way in patient care, if we’re going to develop new technologies, then teamwork has got to be one of them.”
Cancio’s path to the Burn Center started after he earned a degree in international relations from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He realized that it was difficult to find a job in that field, even though he grew up in Washington D.C. His father, an attorney, encouraged him to attend law school. That wasn’t the case. He applied for and got accepted to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. While working on his masters, Cancio had a talk with his high school principal and asked for advice on a career.
“I really had no idea what I to do with myself, and I asked the principal for some help,” he said. “And he told me, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t go to medical school.’ And quite frankly, the thought has crossed my mind once or twice in college, but never seriously, but for some reason, when he told me that, I decided that I would take him up on that and I rearranged my life and went back to college and finished my pre-med courses.”
Attending medical school took some adjusting. Cancio had to overcome some prejudices he had. Earlier in life, he had convinced himself that he was not good in science or math—he had to change that. He also realized that medical school was a big commitment and that could interfere with other things that he wanted to do.
“I was also interested, believe it or not, in becoming an actor and to join the theater,” he said, “but others reminded me that just like political science, it is very difficult to get a job in Washington, D.C., or any other place for that matter, as an actor, especially if you look like me. So, that being the case, I went to medical school.”
Cancio attended Georgetown University of School of Medicine with a Health Professions Scholarship Program scholarship. After completing medical school in 1987, Cancio completed his internship at Brooke Army Medical Center before his tour with the 82nd Airborne Division. He then returned back to BAMC to complete his residency in general surgery, before being transferred to the USAISR Burn Center.
“I feel at home in this organization,” Cancio said. “Taking care of service members and civilians is one of the things that I care most about. I’m passionate about that and it’s what drives me to pursue excellence in what I do and in my work with others.”