The Death of a Heart Surgeon

On July 29, 2000, at the age of 77, Dr. Rene Favaloro – the Argentine doctor who pioneered the development of coronary artery bypass surgery  –  took his own life by shooting himself in the chest.

Dr. Rene Favaloro

Born in the city of La Plata, Favaloro along with his brother spent the decade of the 1950s working as general practitioners serving the poor, rural population in the town Jacinto Arauz in the province of La Pampa. Together they spent twelve year modernizing a local clinic achieving significant decreases in malnutrition and infection during childbirth in the region.

In 1962, after developing a strong interest in thoracic surgery, Favaloro was offered the opportunity to work and study at the Cleveland Clinic under the mentorship of Dr. Mason Sones, “the father of modern cardiology”. In 1967, he conducted the first bypass operation using a saphenous vein taken from the patient’s leg.

Rene Favaloro with Mason Sones

In 1971, Favaloro decided to return to Argentina with the dream of developing a foundation that could apply this pioneering work all over Latin America. In 1975, with support from his colleagues, he founded the Favaloro Foundation. The Favaloro Foundation received patients from all over Argentina, many of whom paid the foundation through the Argentine equivalent of medicare. In an interview in 1994, Rene Favaloro stated, “I am not the doctor of the rich. Less than 5% of my patients would fall into that category.”

As Argentina’s economy headed towards a crash (that would explode in 2001), the Favaloro Foundation fell into millions of dollars of debt, much of it money that was owed the foundation by the Argentine government. In 2000, the Foundation demanded payment for 195 outstanding bills, dated between 1993 and 1995, from PAMI (the federally run Program for Integral Medical Care that services the elderly). The comptroller of PAMI, a young bureaucrat named Horacio Rodriguez Larreta who had been assigned his position by then president Fernando de la Rua with the aim of erasing the entities debt, claimed, “We never said that the service was not provided. What we said was that the service does not figure in the accounting ledgers of PAMI, and neither does the debt.”

On July 18, Favaloro met directly with representatives of PAMI, and they reviewed the 195 bills, case by case. All 195 unpaid bills were confirmed by an accountant, and three days later Larreta called for an internal audit to avoid paying the two million dollars. Favaloro wrote directly to the president of the nation, de la Rua, explaining that he was desperate, that he had been reduced to being “a beggar”. With no response from the President, who later admitted that he did not see the letter until after the fact, Rene Favaloro took his own life. His farewell note explained, “I am tired of fighting, fighting and fighting, galloping against the wind, as Don Ata said. This is not an easy decision, but, yes, it is a meditated one.”

Maria Eugenia Vidal and Horacio Rodriguez Larreta

Horacio Rodriguez Larreta is currently serving as mayor of Buenos Aires. His right hand person at PAMI in those days was Maria Eugenia Vidal who is currently serving as governor of the province of Buenos Aires. Both of them helped found the political party of President Mauricio Macri, Cambiemos.

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