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Legendary Charlotte Heart Surgeon Remembered

Dr. Francis Robicsek
Atrium Health Foundation
Dr. Francis Robicsek

In the medical field, Dr. Francis Robicsek has been described by many as an international giant in his field: An innovator in the field of heart surgery and transplants, and a humanitarian who shared his skills with those without access to quality health care around the globe.

Robicsek, a Hungarian native who began practicing in Charlotte 62 years ago, died last Friday at the age of 94. Karen Garloch, a former Charlotte Observer health reporter who covered Robicsek’s career extensively talks about his contributions to medicine.

Karen Garloch: He was a huge innovator here in the United States and in Charlotte, but he also spoke at international meetings. He was just one of the pioneers in cardiac surgery. 

Gwendolyn Glenn: He did a lot of firsts here in Charlotte. Tell us about some of those.

Garloch: He came to Charlotte in 1956 and very soon after that, he and another cardiac surgeon that he worked with began performing the first open-heart surgeries -- what we now know as cardiac bypass. And he performed the first heart transplant in Charlotte in 1986. 

Glenn: And I understand, too, that along with that, he was an engineer in a garage. From what you wrote, he built equipment that helped with keeping the heart beating. Tell me about that.

Garloch: To do a cardiac bypass, you need to have a heart-lung machine. And Charlotte didn't have one. And he went to the Cleveland Clinic where they had one of these machines and observed them using it and came home and with an engineer friend. They built a heart-lung machine in that engineer's garage. And for years, Dr. Robicsek carried that machine back and forth between what was Charlotte Memorial Hospital and what was then Mercy Hospital -- so he could do those operations at both of those hospitals. 

Glenn: Someone with this kind of reputation and the innovations that he brought to heart surgery here in Charlotte, I would take it that he was very, very well known during his time?

Garloch: He was very well known. People who are new to Charlotte today might not recognize his name because he hadn't been doing surgery since 1998. But in the '60s and '70s and '80s, people called him a legend in his own time, and a treasured institution. And almost everyone you talked to had a loved one or a friend who had an operation done by him and credited him with saving their lives. 

Glenn: And I understand that he was also a champion for making sure that African Americans got the care that they needed in terms of heart health, because of course, when he was a well-known surgeon, this was during the days of segregation. Tell me about that.

Garloch: Yes. In the '60s, African American patients were sent to what was known as Good Samaritan. And they couldn't come to Charlotte Memorial. And so when he had a black patient who needed heart surgery, he had arranged with a colleague at a special tuberculosis hospital in Huntersville -- that’s no longer there -- he had arranged to have these patients transferred to that hospital, even though they didn't have tuberculosis. And he was able to do heart surgery on them there. And I've also heard of many times when he provided surgery to people who didn't have insurance and couldn't pay. And one of the things he told his family is that he wanted his epitaph to read: I never turned away a patient. 

Glenn: He also was well known on the international front. And a lot of his work was done in Central America. How extensive was his work there? 

Garloch: It's almost more extensive than I can describe. I mean, he's worked with those countries since the 1960s. He first went there on volunteer medical missions where he would do surgery for free. And I remember that in Guatemala, he couldn't work there for very long because they didn't have enough supplies. So he spent a lot of time visiting the Mayan ruins and got to become an expert on that culture. He became friends with the president of Guatemala at the time. And so they hatched a plan to bring a heart hospital to one of the cities there. And over the years, that program only grew. And he was able to take the equipment from Charlotte Memorial, now Carolinas Medical Center, that would have been discarded and have it refurbished and sent to these countries to build cardiac catheterization labs and pediatric and neonatal intensive care units. 

Glenn: And Karen, you also accompanied him on one of his trips to Central America. Tell us about that experience.

Garloch: It was in 2012 when he was going to Nicaragua for the dedication of a cardiac catheterization unit. It was just amazing to see how the officials there treated him with such respect by the locals who were just so happy to have this equipment available for their people. 

Glenn: And again, he passed at the age of 94. And I understand he had a special request of how he wanted to be buried?

Garloch: He did. He told the family that he would like to be put to rest in his surgical scrubs. I mean, I've seen him, of course, many times in suits. But I observed his final surgery in 1998. And that's the way I remember him -- in green scrubs, the V-neck collar. He loved doing surgery. He loved his patients, and I think that was a very fitting request for a man like Robicsek.

Glenn: Karen Garlow is a former health reporter for The Charlotte Observer.