When I was in elementary school and my grandmother had a heart attack, something about her life-saving surgery didn't make sense to me. As an inveterate and naturally inquisitive questioner (a quality I've somehow spun into a profession), I begged my mom to explain how doctors were able to work magic in the operating room. Rightfully wary of sharing too many details, my mom offered this: "they took a healthy part from her leg and used it to fix her heart." If emojis had existed in 1994, my fourth grader face would've resembled this one: 😲
It turns out the common cardiac procedure is the brainchild of one renowned surgeon: the late René Favaloro. Although the Argentinian doctor passed away in 2000, his legend lives on thanks to the groundbreaking surgery he developed known as coronary artery bypass graft or CABGs (pronounced "cabbages" — cute, right?).
Here's how it works: When plaque builds up on the inside of the coronary arteries (aka the tubes that pump oxygen-rich heart to the blood), it can harden or break over time, narrowing the arteries and therefore reducing the amount of oxygenated blood flowing to the heart. This can eventually lead to a heart attack. Clearing the blockage is one treatment option, but Favaloro devised another: removing a healthy artery or vein from another part of the body and connecting (or grafting) it to the blocked coronary artery. By putting a new pathway in place, the oxygenated blood is able to go around (or bypass) the blockage, and the heart is able to receive the blood it needs.
Favaloro developed the crafty maneuver while working at the Cleveland Clinic in May 1967. The Buenos Aires native had been working as a doctor in his home country before moving to the United States in 1962 to study cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the distinguished institution. It was there that during an operation on a 51-year-old woman with a blockage in her right coronary artery that Favaloro performed a "saphenous aortocoronary bypass," which means he removed a vein from the patient's leg and used it to circumvent the obstruction to her heart. One year later, Favaloro had performed the same procedure dozens of times and reported on the technique's successes.
In 1971, the pioneering surgeon returned to Argentina and founded a medical research and training foundation, Fundación Favaloro, four years later. Today, CABG is the most common type of heart surgery in the world, and Favaloro remains a medical hero. While his legacy lives on, Favaloro's life was cut short on July 29, 2000. At age 77, he died by suicide, a shocking loss that sparked debate over Argentina's devastating recession. In response to his death, Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa established a day of mourning, and Favaloro continues to be celebrated and heralded as a revolutionary in modern medicine.