Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, FACS, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Charlotte, NC, whose innovations in surgery and consummate humanitarianism brought profound health improvements around world, passed away peacefully April 3. He was 94 years old. Dr. Robicsek’s commitment to his patients, domestic and international, made a lasting impact and was recognized by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) in 2017 with the ACS/Pfizer Surgical Humanitarian Award.
Early dedication to domestic patient care
Born and educated in Hungary, Dr. Robicsek came to the U.S. to escape the Hungarian revolution in the 1950s, after becoming the chief of the University of Budapest department of cardiac surgery at just 29 years old. He began practicing at Charlotte Memorial Hospital, NC, now the Carolinas Medical Center, where he worked alongside Paul Sanger, MD, and Fred Taylor, MD, to perform Charlotte’s first open-heart operations, and coordinated with an engineer to construct the heart-lung machine needed to keep a patient’s heart beating during surgery. In 1986, Dr. Robicsek and Harry Daugherty, MD, performed the city’s first heart transplant. Dr. Robicsek continued to perform surgery at Carolinas Medical Center until his retirement from active practice in 1998, but he continued teaching and mentoring well after that.
Dr. Robicsek’s passion for humanitarian aid was apparent from his early days in the U.S. He chose to operate on African-American patients who, in the segregation era, were denied treatment at the former Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Dr. Robicsek worked around this limitation by admitting black patients to a tuberculosis hospital nearby and performing operations there. He went on to found one of the first integrated patient practices in the area.
In 1959, Dr. Robicsek cofounded Heineman Medical Outreach, Inc., a one-time research organization in Charlotte, NC. As president of the organization for nearly 50 years, Dr. Robicsek guided its evolution to a local and humanitarian aid program in partnership with the Carolinas HealthCare System.
A lifetime of international humanitarianism
The breadth of Dr. Robicsek’s humanitarian spirit became clear through his work on the global stage. Dr. Robicsek began his international humanitarian work in the early 1960s in Honduras, treating surgical tuberculosis patients and then expanding his surgical services to other countries, providing direct surgical care to patients in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Eastern Europe. His contributions to cardiothoracic surgery in Central America are particularly noteworthy. Dr. Robicsek performed the first open-heart operations in Honduras and Guatemala and initiated and assisted the first open-heart surgery by a native surgeon in Belize.
In the 1970s, he arranged to have patients from Guatemala flown into Charlotte for operations, and he accepted Guatemalan surgeons for training fellowships. His ties with the Guatemalan government and health care system eventually led to the founding of Unidad de Cirugía Cardiovascular de Guatemala—or UNICAR—the Guatemalan Heart Institute, where more than 700 heart operations are performed annually. These and other operations in Central America are made possible in part by the more than $1.5 million in new and refurbished hospital supplies that Dr. Robicsek arranged to have delivered to the region each year. UNICAR now serves patients from neighboring countries, as well.
The facilities of Carolinas Medical Center were provided for the training and education of Guatemalan surgeons, technicians, and nurses who specialized in different areas related to cardiovascular surgery. For many years, he maintained a guest house at the hospital for these health care workers to train at no cost. Dr. Robicsek’s efforts also led to the establishment of burn units, mammography, echocardiogram networks, catheter labs, and more across Central America. Since 2010, when Heineman and the Carolinas HealthCare System established the International Medical Outreach Program, these humanitarian efforts have continued to grow.
Dr. Robicsek was recognized with high honors from the Guatemalan government for his efforts, including the highest Guatemalan award, La Orden del Quetzal, in the rank of Grand Commander, by the President of the Republic during the founding of the Cardiovascular Surgery Unit of Guatemala in 1976.
For his dedicated patient care in Charlotte and lifelong commitment to providing cardiothoracic surgery and health services in Guatemala and around the world, Dr. Robicsek will be remembered as a surgeon and person of rare caliber.