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Famous South Americans: René Favaloro

Published December 18, 2015 by Nick Dall

The Argentine surgeon who pioneered heart bypass surgery in the 1960s and 70s was also responsible for bringing world-class healthcare to Argentina’s rural poor. He was a national celebrity and his suicide in the year 2000 is still mired in controversy.
World famous
Favaloro burst to fame in 1967 when – together with a team of surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic – he performed the world’s first coronary bypass on a 51-year-old woman. This surgery involved using a segment of vein harvested from the patient’s leg to bypass a blockage in one of her coronary arteries. In the years that followed it became one of the most-performed operations in the world, reaching a peak of 600,000 procedures in 1996 alone.
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Humble beginnings       
Favaloro grew up in a poor area of La Plata, the son of a carpenter and a seamstress. He made the decision to become a doctor at the age of four and, upon graduating medical school two decades later, accepted a post as a country doctor in a small town in the rural Pampas. In his 12 years there “he radically improved the health of the rural community, almost eliminating infant mortality and drastically reducing the cases of malnutrition and infection.”
Champion of the poor
This experience informed everything that he did and after his highly successful tenure at the Cleveland Clinic he returned to his homeland to focus on bringing healthcare to the marginalized and the destitute. In 1975 he founded the Fundación Favaloro; a hospital, training facility and research center. The Foundation brought cutting-edge surgeries to Argentina and from the outset Favaloro set out a special provision for those who couldn’t pay: “We insisted on the admittance of a number of beds for the poor. This meant that hundreds of patients were treated completely free of charge.”
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Tragic ending
On July 29 2000, Favoloro committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. On the surface it was quite easy to understand his decision: Argentina was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis and the Fundación Favaloro had run up debts in the region of $20 million. Favoloro had petitioned, without success, for government intervention.
But once the dust had settled it became clear that he had more general complaints too. Just before his death he wrote several letters to high-profile people and institutions. In one such letter he lamented: “Recent times have transformed me into a beggar in my own country. I feel alone in this society, which is truly made of shit.”
Further reading
A glowing obituary from a fellow doctor: In Memoriam: Tribute to René Favaloro, Pioneer of Coronary Bypass
An interesting article with a particularly insightful section on his death: Shot Through the Heart: The Life and Death of René Favaloro
A fascinating scholarly article which questions the real medical importance of bypass surgery and angioplasty: A Cardiac Conundrum