Rene Favaloro: Who was the tragic medical pioneer and why is Google celebrating him?

Rene Favaloro: Who was the tragic medical pioneer and why is Google celebrating him?

Dr Rene Favaloro, a pioneer in the development of coronary artery bypass surgery, was born on this date in July 1923 and is being celebrated in Google's latest Doodle.

Favaloro was raised in La Plata, Argentina, where he played football in the streets like every self-respecting citizen of the nation that gave the world Diego Maradona and Leo Messi.

At 13, he attended high school at the Colegio Nacional de La Plata before being admitted to the School of Medicine at the National University of La Plata. As a third-year medical student, Favaloro completed a residency at the Hospital Policlinico San Martin, Buenos Aires, before graduating in 1949.

Rather than become a member of the ruling Peronist Party - a requirement for him to be taken on as a medical auxiliary - Favaloro moved away to small town Jacinto Arauz in the La Pampa Province to set up practice, bringing along his brother Juan Jose to co-manage the clinic and marrying first wife Maria Antonia Delgado two years later.

The siblings quickly added an operating room and X-ray machine to the facilities they had inherited and expanded the existing laboratory, greatly improving the health of the local populace through education and establishing its first mobile blood bank, events recorded in his book, Memoirs of a Country Doctor.

It was while serving here as a GP that Favaloro first became interested in cardiovascular intervention and thoracic surgery, a fascination that would ultimately cause him to, reluctantly, give up his rural practice to study in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1962, where he worked with admired professors F Mason Sones, Willem Kolff and Donald Effler, reviewing the clinic's unrivalled library of coronary angiograms to study the relationship between the heart's arteries and muscle.

By 1967, Favaloro had conceived the idea repurposing the saphenous vein as a means of allowing the blood to bypass obstructed or diseased arteries - the breakthrough that would make his name. That May, he carried out the first documented saphenous aortocoronary bypass on a 51-year-old woman. It worked.

His procedure would gradually become standard practice and Favaloro's treatise Surgical Treatment of Coronary Arteriosclerosis appeared in 1970, after which he returned in triumph to Argentina.

In 1975, he founded the Favaloro Foundation to train young surgeons, which was so successful that, it was said, in later years he could not travel anywhere in Latin America without running into one of his graduates. A specialist facility, the Favaloro Foundation Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery, would open in Buenos Aires in 1992.

But the life of this visionary physician would end in tragedy when he committed suicide by shooting himself through the chest at his home in Palermo on 29 July 2000, aged 77. The foundation had become mired in debt as a result of a national economic crisis and no bailout was forthcoming from Argentina's government despite his petitions for help.

In a letter to President Fernando de la Rua, unread in the deceased's lifetime, Rene Favaloro was found to have likened himself and his desperate pursuit of funding to Cervantes' delusional knight Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in the belief they were tyrannical giants.

Despite his sad demise, Favaloro's achievements revolutionised heart surgery around the world, saving the lives of many, and he is remembered for his garlanded career and as a hero to his fellow professionals.

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