Foreigner’s Heart Bypass Breakthrough A Tribute To America of Old — But Don’t Tell Google

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Google today is honoring an Argentinian doctor whose invention of the modern method for heart bypass surgery in 1967 took place in the United States.

Why is that? Why not in his native Argentina?

The biographical sketch Google provides doesn’t mention it, but Dr. Rene Favolaro could not get a research position he sought in Argentina after graduating from medical school in 1949 because he refused to join the political party of Argentina’s president at the time, Juan Peron, a sort of democratic strongman who believed in government control of large sectors of the economy, including health care.

Instead, Favolaro took a job as a small-town doctor.

More than a decade later, a medical professor who saw that Favolaro was interested in cardiovascular problems recommended that he go to the Cleveland Clinic, an academic hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. The hospital was (and is) owned by a nonprofit corporation, meaning nobody could buy or sell it. But it operated in a profit-centered economy, meaning that if you provided goods and services that people found valuable you could attract lots of money.

As a famous and successful hospital, the Cleveland Clinic had lots of paying customers (either in the form of cash or health insurance), so it was able to spend lots of money to get the best staff and equipment.

Favolaro studied at the hospital, and learned. In 1967, a 51-year-old woman who was a patient at the hospital was in danger of dying from a heart blockage that couldn’t be treated with then-conventional methods. He had an idea:  Why not try the great saphenous vein in her leg, the longest vein in the body, to replace the coronary artery that wasn’t working?

It worked. Later, he came up with a way to bypass coronary artery blockages altogether by using the same long vein in the patient’s leg to go around the blockages.

His work saved his patient’s life. And it has been saving lives ever since.

About five years later Favolaro went home to Argentina and established his own cardiovascular foundation to improve heart care in his native land. He was celebrated as a national hero.

But in 2000, Favolaro’s foundation was $18 million in the red – the victim, he said, of various government agencies that refused to pay money he said they owed. He was also mourning the death of his wife. At age 77, Favolaro shot himself in the chest and died.

Favolaro’s sad end does not take away his achievements. And his achievements are a tribute to some facets of America we used to take for granted.

First:  An immigration system that makes sense. Favolaro had something to offer our country in 1962, so our government let him in. You shouldn’t have to be a doctor to come to America, but you should have some capacity we can use.

Second:  A market-based health care system. Many doctors are not primarily motivated by money. That’s admirable. But medical innovations are only likely to occur in an atmosphere where individuals and institutions can make money (and perhaps lots of money) from their successes.

Third:  An absence of political correctness. In Argentina, Favolaro couldn’t get ahead because he didn’t jump on the prevailing party’s bandwagon. In America in the 1960s, Cleveland Clinic officials didn’t care what his political beliefs were. They also didn’t care about his ethnicity (Sicilian), his nationality (Argentinian), or his native language (Spanish).

They cared about his ability to do good work. So they gave him a job.

It paid off for all of us.