Author + information
- William W Parmley, MD, MACC*
- ↵*Reprint requests and correspondence: William W. Parmley, MD, MACC, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 415 Judah St., San Francisco, California 94122
About 15 years ago, I and another physician from the U.S. were invited to speak at the Peruvian Society of Cardiology, which that year was held in the picturesque town of Arequippa in the south of Peru. We brought our wives with us, since after the meeting we wanted to visit Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. At the end of the meeting, as we prepared to fly from Arequippa to Cuzco with airline tickets in our hand, we were told there was no such plane (a precursor of the United Airlines syndrome). Thus we had to get railway tickets, get to the station, find the right train, etc., without a knowledge of the Spanish language. A world-renowned Argentine surgeon and his wife, Maria, took time out of their travel plans to accompany us to the station and almost came with us to assure that everything went well. Those of you ever stuck in a foreign country without knowing the language can appreciate how difficult that can be. And so Dr. Rene Favalaro and his wife accompanied us to the dusty, nondescript railway station of Arequippa to board an ancient train for our interesting and at times perilous journey north to Cuzco. It was of no concern to them that they had to change their own flights to Argentina to do this. It was an incident that defined the man—although but a passing moment in a lifetime.
Over the years I have appreciated the opportunity to count Dr. Favalaro as a friend and to visit with him in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and a variety of locations at national and international cardiology meetings. He always had a commanding presence with a Latin flair, but a sincere and open heart. He had a rags-to-riches story, the son of a seamstress and a carpenter who began his medical career practicing among the poor. He never forgot those humble beginnings, and it characterized his later life when the Favaloro foundation provided free care for countless individuals. He had an intense love for his country as a patriot, but at the same time was a citizen of the world. Although his use of a vein for bypass surgery of the heart in 1967 was not the first time it had been done, it was the first account to be published, and it revolutionized the practice of surgery for coronary artery disease. I was a cardiology fellow at the Brigham from 1967 to 1969 and can appreciate the dramatic difference between the Vineberg procedure being done then and the subsequent development of coronary bypass surgery.
We featured him, Dr. Spencer King (who wrote on angioplasty), and Dr. Thomas J. Ryan (who wrote the editorial) in a special supplement to JACC (1) where Dr. Favaloro traced the history of coronary artery surgery. His initial manuscript had many wonderful musings about life, care for the poor, and motives for practicing medicine that I, as an editor, removed—not because they weren’t stirring and sometimes profound commentaries on our current medical system, but because they didn’t seem to fit the usual scientific tone of a supplement to JACC. In retrospect, I should have left some of those passages in because they said more about the man than all of his scientific writings.
What would cause such a man, who had done it all, to contemplate and commit suicide. We may never know the complexities of the answer to this question. He was a proud man, however, and the Favaloro Foundation had fallen on hard times, just as the Argentine economy had fallen on hard times. Apparently he owed the federal government social security contributions for his employees, but at the same time was owed a more substantial amount by the federal government for unpaid services to a public retirement institute. In the days before his death he wrote a letter to President de la Rua of Argentina pleading for financial assistance. What difficulty it must have been for this proud man, and benefactor of so many, to become a “beggar.”
The shock of his death sent not only Argentina but the world of cardiology and cardiac surgery into mourning. This sad event seems to be another marker of the difficulties of survival for academic medicine not only in this country but worldwide. Just as Dr. Favaloro could not get enough money to sustain his research enterprise, we have seen the difficulties in academic medicine that have beset this country (2). I really believe that the fact that he might not be able to continue his Foundation, and would thus let down his friends and employees, was too much for this proud man. The advancing years of one’s life should not be the worst, but so frequently they can be. In an essay published in La Nacion on August 7, 2000, entitled “the Sad Land of Psychoanalysis and Tango,” Claudio Ivan Remeselra wrote: “Millions of Argentines, trapped by unemployment and recession, are confronting an insecure future with anguish. The death of Rene Favaloro marked a transcendent moment in this climate of frustrated expectations.”
A great man and a great surgeon is no longer with us. Each individual who knew him will carry their own memories. Mine will be closely linked to the simple kindness of a renowned surgeon in a dusty railway station in Arequippa, Peru—a man who was there to help his friends, regardless of personal inconvenience. I will remember his confident bearing and, although he was a sober man, his twinkly smile. His life and his work truly made it possible for many patients with coronary artery disease to live longer and more fulfilling lives.
- American College of Cardiology