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Rene Favaloro: 1923-2000: Heart Surgeon

Interest In Medicine Began Early

Rene Geronimo Favaloro was born July 14, 1923, and raised in a modest home in La Plata, Argentina. His mother, Ida Y. Raffaelli, was a dressmaker, and his father, Juan B. Favaloro, was a carpenter. Favaloro's uncle was the only person in the family to have earned a university education, and he had become a doctor. Favaloro was convinced even as a boy that his own destiny lay in medicine, as well. He studied medicine at La Plata University, graduating in 1948. In 1950 he took a temporary post working as a country doctor in Jacinto Arauz, a small, impoverished town in the province of La Pampa, 300 miles west of Buenos Aires. He ended up staying in Jacinto Arauz for 12 years. "The lessons of his rural practice were never lost on him," Pearce Wright wrote in a London Guardian obituary, "and he maintained that all doctors in Latin America should be required to work among the poor."

Favaloro left Jacinto Arauz for America to begin his post-graduate studies. When Favaloro arrived at the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in 1962, he spoke very little English. However, the language barrier did not hold him back. Favaloro soon established himself as a pioneer in his field, although he was prone to breaking into a string of Spanish expletives when things were not going his way in the operating room.

In 1967 Favaloro performed the world's first documented coronary bypass surgery. Eugene Pottenger, a 54-year-old produce wholesaler from Illinois, had been given just three months to live because of the severe blockage of an artery to his heart. Pottenger was hooked up to an artificial heart-lung machine, and Favaloro "harvested" a vein from the patient's leg to use as a replacement for the clogged coronary artery. The procedure has become "a mainstay of modern medicine," according to the London Times, and boasts survival rates of 20 years or more.

At a Glance . . .

Born Rene Geronimo Favaloro on July 14, 1923, in La Plata, Argentina; died on July 29, 2000, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; son of Ida Y. Raffaelli (a dressmaker) and Juan B. Favaloro (a carpenter); married Maria (deceased); children: raised four of deceased brother's children. Education: National College and Medical School at the University of La Plata, MD, 1948; Rawson Hospital, Buenos Aires, postgraduate coursework; Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Cleveland Clinic, post-graduate studies, c. 1962.

Career: Instituto General San Martin in La Plata, intern, resident, staff position, 1940s; Jacinto Arauz, Las Pampas, Argentina, general practitioner, 1950-62; Cleveland Clinic, heart surgery and research, 1962-72; performed first documented coronary bypass surgery, 1967; author of more than 300 scientific papers, 1960s-2000; Favaloro Foundation, founder, 1992-2000.

Others would claim to have already performed the procedure. In the world of medical achievement, however, nothing is accomplished until it is documented in a medical journal. Favaloro and the Cleveland Clinic were the first to appear in print, in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery in August of 1969. Favaloro maintained the procedure was nothing more than a logical next step from the work he and his team had been doing. "Medicine is only evolution and it doesn't matter who is first," he was quoted as saying in the London Times. Still, he added, "in this case there is no doubt that the Cleveland Clinic was first."

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