René Favaloro: etched in our hearts

By The Favaloro Foundation

Fundación Favaloro

René Favaloro pioneered the heart bypass - an operation now performed hundreds of thousands of times a year in the US alone. Hear his story, from his early noble aspirations to the moment he changed medical history.

50th anniversary of the bypassThe Favaloro Foundation

'Every doctor and, in this case, I would say: every scientist, should dedicate their life to the service of humankind.'

- René Favaloro, 1923 - 2000

School days

Born in La Plata, a city neighbouring Buenos Aires, René Gerónimo Favaloro attended the National College after passing tough examinations. There, he not only received a solid educational grounding - teachers also instilled into him strong humanist principles.

Favaloro later joined the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the National University of La Plata.

During his third year, he began a residence at the General Hospital.

As worked ever more closely with patients, he became certain of his vocation as a doctor.

René Favaloro's doctoral thesis (1949)The Favaloro Foundation

Favaloro graduated with a medical degree in 1949. In the inscription opening his work, he wrote:

'To the memory of my grandmother, Césarea R. de Raffaelli, from whom I learned to love even a miserable dry branch'.

René G. Favaloro PHThe Favaloro Foundation

Favaloro seemed preordained to follow in the footsteps of his teachers. And after his graduation in 1949 a vacancy opened there for an auxiliary doctor.

Within a few months, he was made a permanent employee.

To the country

That was when René received a letter from an uncle from Jacinto Aráuz, a small town of 3,500 inhabitants in the Argentine desert zone of La Pampa. His uncle explained that the town’s only doctor had fallen ill and left for Buenos Aires for treatment, and asked his nephew to help out for two or three months.

50th anniversary of the bypassThe Favaloro Foundation

'I began my activity with 12 years of country practice… and it was my destiny to end up in a tiny town, Jacinto Aráuz, in the west of the dry Pampa, where the desert begins, to live among very poor people.'

- René Favaloro

Life was hard. Roads were impassable on rainy days, the summer heat and dust storms were unbearable, and the cold winter nights got to everyone.

But Favaloro always took an interest in his patients - seeking out the root cause of their ailments.

He was soon joined by his brother, Juan José, also a doctor. With their kind character, hard-working nature and devotion to patients the brothers quickly meshed with the community.

Cover of the book "Recuerdos de un médico rural"The Favaloro Foundation

The brothers built an assistance centre, which became renowned in the region and helped improve.

Reflecting on its success, Favaloro noted that treatment 'must be surrounded with dignity, equality, Christian mercy, sacrifice, altruism and self-denial', and ascribed this approach partly to the humanist education they received at the University of La Plata.

René G. Favaloro PHThe Favaloro Foundation

The trip to Cleveland

Favaloro devoured new medical publications and returned often to La Plata to update his knowledge. The first cardiovascular interventions were a marvel, heralding a new medical era. Inspired, he resolved to undertake a specialization course in the United States. 

He wanted to be part of the revolution.

He had major reservations about leaving behind the years of rural medicine, which had given him so much satisfaction. But he realized that, upon returning, his contribution to the community could be even more valuable.

With few resources and only basic English skills, he travelled to Cleveland.

And what was intended to be a brief stay in the US turned into a decade.

Cover of the book "Surgical Treatment of Coronary Arteriosclerosis"The Favaloro Foundation

Early in 1967, Favaloro began to think about the possibility of using the saphenous vein - found in the leg, and the longest vein in the human body - in coronary surgery. He put his ideas to practice for the first time in May of that year.

The standardization of this technique, called the heart bypass, or myocardial revascularization surgery, was the high point his career.

The procedure transformed the treatment of coronary disease worldwide.

The procedure is described in his landmark book, Surgical Treatment of Coronary Arteriosclerosis, published in Spanish in 1970 (Tratamiento Quirúrgico de la Arteriosclerosis Coronaria).

50th anniversary of the bypassThe Favaloro Foundation

‘The saphenous vein was already used … for peripheral surgery and ... renal circulation.

'So I said: "why not use it at the coronary level? If it works there, it is bound to work here as well."'

- René Favaloro

By Michael MauneyLIFE Photo Collection

‘All I did was take a piece of the saphenous vein, sew it in the proximal and distal part, and the circuit was re-established.'

- René Favaloro

To this day in the US alone doctors perform hundreds of thousands of heart bypass operations.

René G. Favaloro PHThe Favaloro Foundation

Return to the homeland

Favaloro’s love for Argentina compelled him to return in 1971. He dreamt of opening a centre like the Cleveland Clinic, combining medical expertise, research and education. In his resignation letter, he wrote: 'Once again, destiny has put a difficult task on my shoulders. I'll dedicate the rest of my life to raising a department of thoracic [chest] and cardiovascular [heart] surgery in Buenos Aires. The circumstances indicate that I am the only one with the possibility of doing it.'

Founded in 1975, the Favaloro Foundation consolidated the maestro's years of experience. And he took pride in training more than 450 people from across Latin America.

And in 1992, the non-profit Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery of the Favaloro Foundation opened in Buenos Aires.

Favaloro Foundation University Hospital LogoThe Favaloro Foundation

The Centre helped raise the standard of heart bypasses internationally through countless courses, seminars and talks such as the biennial ‘Cardiology for the Consultant’.

AngiographThe Favaloro Foundation

Under the motto 'advanced technology in the service of medical humanism', the centre offers specialized treatments for heart, lung, liver, kidney and bone conditions among others.

This is where Favaloro focused his task, surrounded by a select group of professionals.

René G. Favaloro PHThe Favaloro Foundation

But on top of health matter, Favaloro wanted to solve broader issues - weighing in on problems like unemployment, inequality, poverty, pollution and violence.

He was convinced that only when a problem is known, it can be remedied or, even better, prevented.

Favaloro Foundation University Hospital, present-day interior view (2019)The Favaloro Foundation

By the year 2000, Argentina was in economic and political crisis and the Foundation was in debt to the tune of US$18 million.

Favaloro was also struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife in 1998.

In the state of deep crisis, on July 29, Favaloro fatally shot himself in the chest.

It was later revealed, in one of the seven letters written before his death, that he had petitioned the government for aid - without receiving a response.

But thanks to the dedication and commitment of those who worked in the Favaloro Foundation, the institution overcame its crisis. Transformed into a sustainable and efficient entity, it is currently composed of more than 50 specialties, including cardiology, and continues to be an institution of reference in the whole Latin America.

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