Saving Lives Through Education

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Trusted Leader - August 2009  


Tex Med . 2009;105(8):55-58.  

By  Crystal Conde
Associate Editor  

An inconspicuous framed photo hanging on the office wall of Francisco G. Cigarroa, MD, represents a snapshot of the beginning of an exciting and fulfilling journey into medicine. Dr. Cigarroa is noticeably absent from the photo, but the event it captures is one he still remembers vividly.

"I almost fainted," he said.

The picture records the first operation the pediatric transplant surgeon ever witnessed: a cesarean section performed by Dr. Cigarroa's uncle, Leonides Cigarroa, MD, in Roma, Texas. Dr. Cigarroa recalls taking the photograph sometime in the early 1970s, when he was about 13.

That moment sparked in the teenager a desire to become a physician. His experiences as a practicing surgeon, researcher, and physician leader have led to a number of firsts and many "beautiful moments."

On Jan. 9, Dr. Cigarroa became the first Hispanic in the country to lead a major public university system when The University of Texas System Board of Regents named him chancellor.

The appointment came as a pleasant surprise to the physician, who had served as president of UT Health Science Center at San Antonio since 2000. Dr. Cigarroa announced he would step down from that post last October.

"Upon completing my tenure as president of the health science center, I decided that perhaps it was time to go back and devote my full attention to transplantation surgery again," he said.

He gave the chancellorship offer careful consideration and reflected on whether this calling to higher public service was worth delaying his decision to go back to work as a full-time surgeon.

"The epiphany came down to one simple conclusion: Education saves lives. A combination of education, health care, and service are practiced every day in this University of Texas System, and I know that the great work of our faculty and students is ultimately saving lives," he said.

Every year, the UT System educates nearly three-fourths of the state's health care professionals. Health and medical research generates more than half of the entire UT System's $11.5 billion annual operating budget.

Dr. Cigarroa is taking on the tremendous task of overseeing the system's nine universities and six health institutions, hundreds of thousands of students, and more than 81,000 employees. It's a job many would consider daunting at the least.

Optimistic he can make a difference, Dr. Cigarroa knows the challenges that lie ahead, specifically addressing Texas' workforce needs in terms of increasing physician supply and achieving greater diversity among health professionals.

"In the UT System strategic plan, we've embarked upon growing our medical student class size by about 30 percent over the next decade," he said. "Working with our state legislators and our academic science centers, we want to enhance the number of residency positions so doctors educated here are more likely to stay in Texas."

He cites the addition of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso and other campuses that serve historically underserved populations as examples of educational outreach and opportunity for a diverse group of medical students.

"It's important for our health workforce to reflect the demography of our state. Hopefully, the UT System can make a substantive difference in increasing diversity," he said.

During his time at UT Health Science Center, Dr. Cigarroa played a part in growing annual Hispanic enrollment from 562 in 2000 to 732 in 2008. 

"Deep in My Blood"  

In his current role, Dr. Cigarroa foresees the need to expand the role of public health by altering unhealthy lifestyles and preventing chronic diseases among the state's residents. Augmenting scientific research is one of his goals, as well.

"We want an environment in our medical schools that can foster great scientific discovery that profoundly changes the way we care for our patients in regard to new surgical interventions, targeted therapies, and medical devices," he said.

The key to having the biggest impact in meeting the state's physician workforce needs, enhancing the role of public health, and expanding medical research, he says, is being strategic in the use of precious resources.

Taking on the role of president of UT Health Science Center, an experience Dr. Cigarroa describes as a steep learning curve, helped him develop the ability to make the most of available resources while inspiring generosity in others. He was thrust into the role of managing the school at age 41.

Dr. Cigarroa describes his time at UT Health Science Center as a series of "beautiful moments." Among them, he recounts the gracious donations of benefactors that made it possible to establish the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, add the Cancer Therapy & Research Center to the health institution, and create the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics.

During his tenure at UT Health Science Center, Dr. Cigarroa had a remarkable financial impact on the medical school, too. It was a period of prosperity during which he led the institution to:

  • Increase research expenditures from $84 million in 2000 to $210 million in 2008;
  • Grow the school's endowment from $293 million in 2000 to $411 million in 2008;
  • Increase the budget from $351 million in 2000 to $668 million in 2008; and
  • Expand the school's economic impact from $8.1 billion in 2000 to $16.3 billion in 2008.

Since he received his medical degree in 1983 from UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Texans have benefited from Dr. Cigarroa's surgical accomplishments. Some highlights from his career include being part of the first surgical team in Texas to split a donor liver for transplant in 1997 and heading up the team that performed the first successful pediatric small bowel transplant.

Dr. Cigarroa looks forward to leading the UT System, and while he can't predict the future, he doesn't want to rule out the possibility he'll return to medicine or else lose touch with the part of himself that identifies with being a physician.

"Medicine is deep in my blood for four generations now," he said.

Taking care of the sick and vulnerable is part of the Cigarroa family business. Dr. Cigarroa's octogenarian father, Joaquin, continues to see patients in Laredo, and his grandfather was a physician. Three of his brothers are practicing physicians, and one sister is a nurse.

Growing up, he and his nine siblings made house calls with their father in Laredo. Seeing the medical needs of patients along the border, Dr. Cigarroa says, further reinforced his longing to practice medicine.

The family tradition will continue with future generations of Cigarroas. Dr. Cigarroa and his wife, Graciela, an attorney, are proud that their younger daughter, Barbara Carisa, plans to attend medical school in Texas. She's currently a freshman at Yale University. Their older daughter, Maria Cristina, graduated from Harvard University in May and will attend the UT School of Law.

Crystal Conde can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1385, or (512) 370-1385; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by e-mail at  Crystal Conde .  



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