Cedars-Sinai Blog

Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Dr. Reinaldo Rampolla, Pulmonologist

Dr. Reinaldo Rampolla

When Dr. Reinaldo Rampolla was two years into his medical fellowship at Tulane University in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina landed on Louisiana's shores—and the lights at his hospital went dark.

"I had been through hurricanes before in Puerto Rico, and I thought it would be the same," he says. "I was very mistaken."

Outside the downtown hospital, the water quickly rose up to people's chests. The catastrophic hurricane ravaged the vibrant city and inundated the surrounding areas, leaving Dr. Rampolla and other young medical fellows to fend for themselves.

When you make that difference in people's lives, it really gives you a lot of satisfaction.

The San Juan native leapt into action, drawing on the experience he had from his early days practicing medicine on the island. He was stuck in the hospital for another six days, taking care of patients with no electricity and few supplies until being evacuated by truck. 

The surreal experience displaced the Cedars-Sinai pulmonologist to Dallas, where he discovered a passion for lung transplants, and set the stage for a career of adapting to crises—and saving lives in the process. We spoke with him about his journey from Katrina to COVID-19.

Hurricane Katrina isn't the only dangerous situation you've spent time in—you're also a veteran. Can you tell us more about your service?

Dr. Reinaldo Rampolla  at Cedars-Sinai with patients.

Dr. Reinaldo Rampolla: I was in the National Guard for 11 years. When I was completing a lung transplant fellowship at Stanford in the summer of 2008, I was deployed to Iraq. I went as a general medical provider to a prison camp in the Basra region in the south of Iraq, where I was in charge of care for close to 2,000 prisoners of war. I also organized records for all of our clinics.

We would do basic primary care for blood pressure, diabetes, ear and sinus infections, and skin abscesses that needed draining. The prisoners there were very appreciative of the help they were being given. They were not going to go out to see the doctor in 100 degrees during the day, so you were working night shifts from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

What did that experience teach you?

RR: We're very fortunate here with the care we receive in the U.S. 

How did you decide on your career path?

RR: My last semester of senior year in high school, my grandfather had a triple bypass. I asked my uncle, who was a family physician, what a triple bypass was. He explained it to me, and I thought, "Sold. That's what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Then, right before I started medical school, my dad passed away from emphysema. He had it for most of his life, and he also had asthma, but it was a very sudden death. Even though I went to medical school, my desire was to become a surgeon. His death really made me change gears. 

I got much more interested in everything related to pulmonary diseases. Now, I work with lung transplants and pulmonary medicine and interact with surgeons almost every day. So I'm kind of doing a little bit of both.

What's your favorite part of working in medicine?

RR: It's when you can actually see the change you've made in somebody's life. In lung transplant, you go through the journey with the patients from the referral and evaluation phase through to transplant and recovery. You see them actually having a life. Those are the things that are very rewarding.

You remember all of your patients. One patient, who had been very sick, did a 10K run with me a year after his transplant. For him, it was a 10K. For somebody else, it was, "I want to be able to see my daughter graduate from college." He was able to.

You were recently reunited with one of those patients. What was that experience like?

RR: When I was a fellow at Stanford, we had a Cedars-Sinai patient go through a heart and lung transplant with us. She was a Mexican patient and spoke very little English, and she got almost every complication you can have with a transplant. 

I was with her basically every day of her three-month stay, because I was able to communicate with her and her family in Spanish. She recovered and went back to L.A. But every year, I would ask her lung transplant doctor how she was doing.

When I started working here, I learned she is still a patient, so we arranged a visit. I was so happy to see her. She came with her mother, who was also very happy to see me. She remembers the hard times she had with her daughter during the transplant, when I had been there always explaining to her what was going on. 

When you make that difference in people's lives, it really gives you a lot of satisfaction.

Now you're facing another crisis in COVID-19. Have your past experiences come in handy?

RR: It's definitely brought back memories. I was talking to one of the fellows over the weekend and joked, "You guys are doing a COVID-19 fellowship now. All of the patients you're seeing right now are COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19"—especially what we're doing in pulmonology. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were first learning about treating COVID-19, it was tough dealing with all those patients, but we had to do whatever we could. It reminded me of when I was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, trying to take care of people without any electricity or supplies. The only difference is that was only six days.

What are you grateful for?

RR: I'm grateful for my health. And I'm grateful for the support of my family, especially my mother, who has always encouraged me to do what I'm passionate about. 

She's my biggest role model. She is handicapped, but that didn’t stop her from having and raising three children, going to law school after we were already in school and having a good career as a lawyer for more than 30 years. My sisters and I have always had her support. And my dad, too—I feel sad because he's not been able to see what I've achieved, but I know he knows.

How do you unwind?

RR: My biggest stress release has always been playing soccer. Kicking a ball can help you cope: It requires a lot of energy, and basically, it wears you out.