René Favaloro: Heart surgery pioneer celebrated in Google doodle

By | July 13, 2019

Argentinian surgeon René Favaloro pioneered heart bypass surgery in the 1960s, extending the lives of millions who develop coronary artery blockages

Health 12 July 2019

René Favaloro

René Favaloro during his time at the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio

The Cleveland Clinic Center for Medical Art & Photography

Argentinian surgeon René Favaloro, who features in today’s Google doodle, pioneered coronary artery bypass surgery, a technique used to restore blood flow to the heart muscle when the vessel supplying it is blocked.

Arteries often become blocked when fatty plaques build up in the vessel walls. This can lead to chest pain, called angina, or a heart attack, when a plaque ruptures and a blood clot blocks the vessel completely. This can happen in any part of the body but is most deadly in the coronary artery, which supplies the heart muscle. If the heart muscle is starved of blood and oxygen, it dies and cannot recover.

In the 1950s, surgeons tried to restore blood flow to the heart by connecting another artery in the chest, the internal mammary artery, to the heart muscle.

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Favaloro developed an alternative method, taking a piece of the saphenous vein from the leg and using it to bypass the blockage in the coronary artery. He performed the first such operation in 1967 on a 51-year-old woman at the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio. Afterwards, chest X-rays showed that the procedure had restored blood flow to her heart.

René Favaloro

René Favaloro in surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio

The Cleveland Clinic Center for Medical Art & Photography

The following year, Favaloro developed the technique further, adding valve replacements and performing the first emergency bypass surgeries for heart attack patients. By 1970, his team had operated on 1086 patients with a mortality rate of just 4.2 per cent – less than the rate for patients who were awaiting surgery.

Favaloro returned to Argentina in 1971 and established a foundation for medical research and education, training hundreds of surgeons himself.

Today, coronary artery bypass surgery is one of the most common operations, with 213,700 carried out in the US in 2011.

Favaloro summed up the impact of his innovation in 1972. “I do not have any doubt that the long follow-up will prove that prolongation of the cardiac patient’s life, improvement of his health, and a return to productive living are now realistic results of surgical procedures.” He was proven correct.

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