Health & Family

Retired Charlotte surgeon helping hospitals in Central America

Dr. Francis Robicsek’s work didn’t end when he retired from surgery 15 years ago.

It was just another beginning.

Today, at 87, he’s a Charlotte ambassador, spreading life-saving knowledge and technology across Central America.

Over the years, the pioneering heart surgeon has arranged to have thousands of pieces of used medical equipment refurbished and shipped to developing countries where his contacts are deep, and he’s welcomed in the homes of presidents. He travels almost once a month to Central America to celebrate the opening of another new hospital service.

Five years after triple-bypass surgery, he could be resting after a long and successful career. But his curiosity and drive keep him going.

“I have to do something – I can’t relax,” Robicsek says. “I am very lucky that I can do this work.”

Follow him to Nicaragua, the poorest country in Latin America.

There, Robicsek’s International Medical Outreach program recently installed a mobile cardiac catheterization laboratory where patients can get diagnosis and treatment. The sophisticated lab is equipped with secondhand echocardiography and electrophysiology systems, refurbished and shipped with donations he solicited from Charlotte-area benefactors.

Watch as reporters for local TV stations thank Robicsek for sending the big white tractor-trailer, parked under the palm trees behind a low-slung, bright blue building. It’s the unassuming home of Nicaragua’s national heart institute, Centro Nacional de Cardiologia.Listen as Robicsek, formally dressed in a sports jacket and tie despite 90-degree heat, addresses the audience in Spanish, one of a half-dozen languages he speaks.

With Robicsek’s latest donation, Nicaragua (population 7 million) now has two public cath labs for patients who receive their health care for free.

Nicaragua’s unit is the fifth mobile cath lab sent to Central America from Charlotte. Others are docked in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, where Robicsek arranged for other Charlotte heart surgeons to assist with the country’s first open-heart operation last year.

This outreach is co-sponsored by Robicsek’s longtime employer, Carolinas HealthCare System, and the Heineman Foundation of Charlotte, which once funded heart research.

Since 2009, Robicsek’s project has donated equipment that would have been worth $5 million new. He has collected about $1 million in donations in that time.

“The value of this equipment here is priceless,” said Fernando Paiz, a Central American businessman who years ago became friends with Robicsek and is now vice president of the Heineman board.

The Charlotte project “brings new life to equipment and to a hospital that really, really needs it,” Paiz said. And it takes advantage of Robicsek’s impressive influence, interests and energy.

“He cannot stay still and not be productive,” Paiz said. “So you become productive and stay productive, and you change people’s lives.”

Latin love affair

Across the Carolinas, many hearts are beating today because Robicsek landed in Charlotte after escaping an anti-Communist revolution in his native Hungary in 1956.

Over 40 years, he performed thousands of operations, including Charlotte’s first open-heart bypass graft and first heart transplant.

Before he could purchase a heart-lung machine, he built one and hauled it from hospital to hospital in the back of a pickup truck. At conferences around the world, he has lectured alongside heart surgery stars such as Dr. Michael DeBakey.

His love affair with Central America dates to the 1960s.

It started with a notice in a medical journal.

Health officials in Honduras were looking for surgeons to volunteer to operate on tuberculosis patients.

Robicsek, whose training taught him how to improvise when medical equipment was inadequate, spent two weeks in Honduras. Surgery didn’t keep him busy enough. He could operate only once a day because the hospital was short on supplies.

In his free time, he wandered through the ghostly remains of the ancient Mayan civilization.

He became fascinated with the culture, visited museums around the world and eventually wrote five books about pre-Columbian art and collected enough of the antiquities to fill his SouthPark home and an entire Robicsek wing at Charlotte’s Mint Museum on Randolph Road.

As his interest in Mayan culture grew, he became acquainted with the editor of National Geographic and began tagging along on photo shoots in Guatemala and Mexico.

On one of those trips in the 1970s, he met the president of Guatemala, Carlos Araña Osorio.

When they became friends, Araña Osorio asked Robicsek to help create Guatemala’s first heart surgery program at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City.

Over the years, Guatemalan doctors and nurses came to Carolinas Medical Center (then called Charlotte Memorial Hospital) for training. Patients flew from Guatemala to Charlotte for tests they couldn’t get at home. And for a time, Robicsek visited Roosevelt every six weeks to assist in surgery.

At home, he trolled the basement of Charlotte Memorial, looking for unused or discarded equipment that he could send to Central American hospitals, where secondhand is welcomed as new.

“They need everything,” he said, “from thumbtacks to operating rooms.”

An important connection

Through his passion for the Mayan culture, Robicsek met another Guatemalan leader who became a partner in international medical outreach.

It was Fernando Paiz, now 62, who himself owns about 4,000 pieces of pre-Columbian art and is promoting the creation of a $75 million national Mayan Museum of America in Guatemala City.

When he heard about Robicsek’s art collection, he arranged an introduction. About 10 years ago, Paiz flew to Charlotte to have dinner with Robicsek and his wife, Lilly, and see the collection in their home.

They, too, became friends and traveled together, visiting Mayan ruins and other Central American sites.

While touring one of the Guatemalan farms Paiz owns, Robicsek spotted a young boy with a club foot.

“Francis said, ‘Send that boy to the hospital and have him cured and send me the bill,’ ” Paiz recalled. “Francis cannot go by a person that is sick without saying, ‘Let’s do something.’ ”

Paiz, whose family recently sold Central America’s largest supermarket chain to Wal-Mart, offered to use his shipping contacts to help with Robicsek’s medical outreach.

“I started helping him clear customs, or helping him negotiate better terms with the carriers, or even getting freight for free,” Paiz said. “Sometimes it was just simple logistics. Sometimes it was twisting the arm of the president of an ocean carrier.

“I am from Central America,” Paiz said, “and I know the people here.”

Negotiating ‘deep discounts’

Robicsek’s international outreach intensified five years ago.

The Heineman Foundation had been founded in the 1940s to support heart research at Charlotte Memorial. But in 2009, the hospital closed its heart research lab, and Heineman changed its focus to Robicsek’s Central American equipment projects.

About the same time, Carolinas HealthCare created a Department of International Medical Outreach for Robicsek.

He still draws a salary, but the hospital won’t disclose how much.

His staff includes two administrative assistants, two warehouse employees and an executive director, Theresa Johnson, who travels with Robicsek and handles many details including negotiating contracts and raising money.

Today, instead of scavenging for items, Robicsek gets first choice of used equipment from Carolinas HealthCare.

He was also able to buy used mobile cath labs – tractor-trailers and equipment – from MedCath, a defunct Charlotte company that operated heart hospitals across the country.

Robicsek then negotiates “deep discounts” for refurbishing and shipping. For example, a new air-conditioned mobile cath lab would cost at least $1.5 million. But Raleigh-based Transtate Equipment Co. does the refurbishing, and Heineman arranges the shipping, for a total cost of about $100,000.

Just this month, the outreach program announced two new partners – Chiquita Brands and Harris Teeter – that paid for transport of a donation of used medical equipment to rural Guatemala.

Helping children

One donation had a notable impact.

When Carolinas HealthCare built a new hospital in Lincolnton in 2010, it gave Robicsek’s project about $800,000 worth of equipment from the old Lincoln Medical Center. The equipment went to Honduras to furnish a children’s burn unit – a place Robicsek has nicknamed “Lincoln Memorial Honduras.”

Charlotte influences can be noticed at other locations around the region.

Inside La Mascota pediatric hospital, Nicaragua’s largest hospital for children, an 8-by-10-inch plaque with a photograph hangs, slightly askew, near the ceiling of the intensive care unit.

The faces are of Charlotte businessman Howard “Smoky” Bissell and his late wife, Sara, friends of Robicsek’s and among the major contributors to his outreach.

Before its 2009 upgrades, the pediatric ICU lacked basic elements. It didn’t have a central oxygen supply, so patients were hooked to heavy oxygen tanks at each bedside. Children who needed breathing assistance were hand-ventilated by nurses around the clock.

Even with upgrades, the ICU still resembles a ward that might have existed in the United States 50 years ago.

Children occupy 12 beds in a room without dividers. Walls and tile floors are scratched and dingy. In one corner, a mother fans her toddler patient. In another bed, a long-legged teenager fights dengue fever. Doctors in white coats cluster near a young patient with a heart problem.

Robicsek, who feels at home in Central America after hundreds of trips, still notices the contrasts. “The plaster is off. The paint is falling off. But the staff is immaculately dressed.”

Although medical equipment has been the heart of Robicsek’s outreach, the project recently took a detour by donating used computers to rural schools in Guatemala. So far, Carolinas HealthCare has donated 7,000 computers that would have been discarded.

“Kids in our country are pulled by the streets,” Paiz said. “There’s a big temptation to escape school and be with your buddies.”

But he said the dropout rate has declined with the addition of computer labs. “So this is marvelous,” Paiz said. “Now these kids are chatting, entering the Internet to investigate. It opens a world for them.”

‘Betterment of mankind’

On his December trip to Managua, Robicsek brought an entourage of assistants, board members and donors to attend the ribbon-cutting for the mobile cath lab.

The Bissells’ son, James “J.J.” Bissell, came in place of his sister, Cary Bissell Pickard, whose name is printed in large black letters on the side of the lab and in whose honor it was donated.

Like Robicsek, J.J. Bissell spoke in Spanish to well-wishers seated under a balloon-festooned tent.

The day was sunny and hot, only three weeks before Christmas. Lively Latin music played. Three little girls performed a traditional dance, twirling in colorful skirts, flowers tucked in their sleek, black hair.

Tall and formal, Robicsek mingled with the guests, his broad forehead a road map of furrows that match the deep growl of his voice, still thick with a Hungarian accent.

Charlotteans marveled at the good he has done for the region.

“He has a passion for doing what’s right and creating things,” said Daniel Aceti, treasurer of the Heineman Foundation. “He has learned how to use his clout for the betterment of mankind.”

Local doctors added their praise.

Dr. Nelson Salazar, director of the national cardiology institute, proudly showed visitors around his building, which by U.S. standards looks more like a free clinic than a hospital. The mobile cath lab parked in back will save lives, he said.

Then he paused, searching for a polite way to describe the hard-charging Robicsek, whose style might be perceived as demanding in this laid-back Latin culture. Salazar motioned with his hands, pushing his left fist hard into his right palm.

“Dr. Robicsek is a little bit persistent,” he finally said with a smile. “Here, people are slower.”

Their approaches may differ, but they share the same goal, he seemed to say.

When a television reporter thanked Robicsek for his gift to Nicaragua, he responded humbly:

“The honor is ours.”