Dr. Robiscek performing surgery

News | 3 years ago

Remembering Dr. Francis Robicsek, an Innovator and Humanitarian

Dr. Francis Robicsek, founder of the Sanger Clinic (now Atrium Health’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute), passed away on Friday, April 3rd at the age of 94. Dr. Robicsek was a beloved member of the community who was known for his innovations in medicine, outstanding patient care, commitment to mentoring, and his passion for humanitarian work at home and abroad.

As we remember Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s founder, Dr. Francis Robicsek, we extend condolences to his family, friends and many patients. A visionary in his field, Dr. Francis Robicsek was a man of many talents and professions who impacted the lives of thousands worldwide through his lifetime accomplishments as a doctor, a philanthropist, a writer, an academic, an innovator – and so much more.  He also helped tens of thousands – close to home and abroad – as the President of Heineman Medical Outreach, Inc. His commitment to providing care – for all – is one that lives on through his legacy. 

Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, the founder of the Sanger Clinic (now known as Atrium Health’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute), passed away peacefully, with his wife by his side, on April 3rd at the age of 94. Known worldwide, Dr. Robicsek was an extraordinary person who dedicated his life to improving medicine and the world in ways both small and large. His family, friends, patients, and colleagues mourn the passing of a devoted husband, father, doctor, mentor, and colleague. Dr. Robicsek is survived by Lilly, his wife of 67 years; four children; and five grandchildren. He asked to be buried in his scrubs, a symbol of his lifelong commitment to caring for others.

Dr. Robiscek family

Early life and career

Dr. Francis Robicsek was born as Ferenc Robicsek in Miskolc, Hungary on July 4, 1925. In 1949, he graduated from medical school at Pazmany Peter University in Budapest. At just 28 years old, he became chief of the University of Budapest Department of Cardiac Surgery. Dr. Robicsek and his wife, also a physician – who was six months pregnant at the time – fled Hungary during the Hungarian revolution, escaping from Soviet control before they were able to fly to America. Dr. Robicsek and his wife settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Dr. Robicsek’s uncle – a local building contractor – helped arrange visas for the couple.

A pioneer in a new era of cardiology and surgery

Dr. Francis Robicsek

1957: Dr. Robicsek began working at Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center), where he – along with Dr. Paul Sanger and Dr. Fred Taylor – performed the city’s very first open-heart operations. In order to perform the surgeries, a special heart-lung machine was needed to keep the hearts beating, but the machine was hard to come by at that time. Dr. Robicsek traveled to the Cleveland Clinic to observe a heart-lung machine being used there, then came back to Charlotte and built a similar machine with a friend who was an engineer. Dr. Robicsek would then take the homemade machine, which was built in his friend’s garage, and transport it in a pickup truck to use it in surgeries at area hospitals. 

1964: A fellow doctor, Dr. Archie Coffee, collapsed next to Dr. Robicsek in an elevator. Acting quickly, Dr. Robicsek grabbed a pair of suture scissors from a nearby nurse, opened Dr. Coffee’s chest, and reached inside and massaged the man’s heart. He then carried Dr. Coffee to a patient room, where he used the cord from a table lamp to administer electric shocks to the heart. Dr. Coffee fully recovered and lived for 31 more years.

1986: Dr. Robicsek, along with Dr. Harry Daugherty of the Sanger Clinic, performed Charlotte’s first heart transplant, ushering in a new era of heart transplantation in North Carolina. 

1998: After performing more than 35,000 surgeries, Dr. Robicsek put his scalpel down, focusing his efforts on leading the Heineman Foundation of Charlotte and International Medical Outreach. Throughout his career, he continued to present at international conferences and was one of the best-known cardiac surgeons in the world.

Dedicated to our mission of Health, Hope, and Healing, for ALL 

Dr. Robicsek was dedicated to the mission for caring for all patients. During the segregation era, African American patients in Charlotte were still treated at a separate hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital. Dr. Robicsek wasn’t allowed to perform heart surgery there, but he found a novel way around the problem by admitting African American patients to a tuberculosis hospital in Huntersville. Although the patients didn’t have tuberculosis, this workaround enabled Dr. Robicsek to perform heart surgery on them at that location. He also established one of the first integrated patient practices in the area. 

A passion for international work

Dr. Francis Robicsek 

In the 1960s through the establishment of Heineman Medical Outreach, Inc., Dr. Robicsek began traveling to Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and other Central American countries in order to perform surgeries and establish medical programs there. When necessary diagnostics were unavailable, Dr. Robicsek would fly patients to Charlotte using a military transport plane, perform cardiac catheterizations to diagnose heart disease, then fly patients back to their homes – all in less than 48 hours.

Dr. Robicsek also founded the Guatemalan Heart Institute, which today performs 700 open heart procedures a year. When Dr. Robicsek traveled back to Central America, he was often surrounded by people who showed him their scars from surgeries he’d performed on them years before.

As President of the Heineman Foundation, Dr. Robicsek partnered with Atrium Health to create the International Medical Outreach (IMO) Program, which has improved the health of patients in 33 countries. His dedication to improving access to care worldwide led to millions of dollars in services donated, along with countless donations of medical equipment, supplies and medical education and training in underdeveloped countries. 

In 2017, he received the Surgical Humanitarianism Award from the American College of Surgeons.

A man of many talents

Dr. Robicsek was also known internationally for his love and knowledge of Mayan culture. A professor in archaeology, he became the author of five books on the subject and collected pre-Columbian pottery, eventually donating more than 1,000 pieces to Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Art. He also received numerous honorary doctorates in medicine, archeology, anthropology, and literature. He was also known for his love of pranks, often playing practical jokes on his co-workers.

Family, friends fondly remember Dr. Robicsek

  • “On behalf of my siblings, my mother and the grandchildren - Francis Robicsek embodies a multitude of such extraordinary and remarkable qualities that make us so proud to call Father, Husband, or Grandfather. He is our “Thousand Points of Light,” and continues to brightly shine upon us and others who loved him. I had the personal great fortune to have worked together with my father at Atrium Health, for the last 10 years, and am grateful for the opportunity to spend quality time with him, either at work and at home most days of the week. He taught me to lead with passion, and not waste time on things that were unimportant. We could not be more proud and in awe of any other human on earth as we are of him. We will miss him dearly.”

 – John Robicsek, Dr. Robicsek’ son and Assistant Vice President, Department of Pharmacy Services, Atrium Health 

  • “I had the privilege of working with Dr. Robicsek for over 20 years, but the last 10 years were particularly special. When International Medical Outreach was formed, he gave me the opportunity to see, through his eyes, the devotion he held for helping the underserved in developing countries. He loved the people of Central America, particularly Guatemala. During a trip to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, he met a medical student, Marissa, who was in desperate need of heart surgery but could not afford it. True to Dr. Robicsek’s character, his ingenious mind found a way for Marrissa to receive the desperately needed heart surgery. He called upon his former resident and dear friend, Dr. Raúl Cruz, at the cardiac center he co-founded in Guatemala, UNICAR. Within 24 hours, Marissa received the surgery. Today, she is a practicing physician in San Pedro Sula. There are literally thousands of these stories all around Central America. When he would travel there, people flocked around Dr. Robicsek with larger than life smiles of gratitude.  Dr. Robicsek was first and foremost a loving husband and father, but his passion was medicine and healing people. I will be forever grateful that our paths crossed.”

Theresa Johnson, Director, International Medical Outreach

  • “Dr. Robicsek taught us all so much – the most important lesson was that of humanitarianism. The second most important lesion was that of collaboration. Perseverance was also a trait he appreciated. Early in my career, he asked me to explain how anyone could ever perform minimally invasive cardiac surgery. We spent the next few days revisiting possible techniques and strategies. One by one, he told me how improbable each technique was. But as he had taught me, I kept coming back for more. A month later he shared that although he had his doubts, he thought I should pursue it. He then arranged multiple international collaborative opportunities. He believed that if enough people told you it couldn’t be done, it might just work. Years later we had a similar discussion regarding transcatheter aortic valve implantation. He was a great mentor, colleague, and friend, a true renaissance man, and to me, my second dad.”

Dr. Eric Skipper, surgical director of cardiac transplantation, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute 

  • “I remember the sessions that we used to have while in training. Usually on the weekends, Dr. Robicsek would gather us in the Sanger ‘library’, right next to his office, to discuss a surgical topic. One day we were discussing different surgical techniques and we all had our preferences. Dr. Robicsek told us, ‘If you try something in the operating room and it doesn’t work, don’t try it again and expect a different result. Think outside of the box, but make sure to perfect the classic way first!’ This commonsense approach works in surgery and it works in life. He was a great mentor, able to train people that agreed or disagreed with his methods. He was one of the few people that I know who always knew what to say.”

Dr. Jeko Madjarov, cardiothoracic surgeon, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute

  • “Amongst his many accomplishments were Dr. Robicsek’s contributions to the study of pre-Columbian art and ‘cracking the Mayan code.’ When a scholar critically stated that Dr. Robicsek could offer little to the field ‘as an amateur’ Dr. Robicsek responded: ‘The Titanic was built by professionals. The Ark was built by an amateur.’

Dr. Geoffrey Rose, President, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute

  • “At the opening of an Echo lab, after telling me that he wasn’t good with children, Dr. Robicsek disappeared, and the next time I saw him he was playing the marimba in the municipal marimba band that was composed of about a dozen 8 to 14 year old kids.”

Jim Olsen, SVP of Materials Resource Management and CPO, Atrium Health

Dr. Francis Robicsek impacted many across the Charlotte region and beyond. If you have a memory, please consider sharing it so the Robicsek family can read these stories from his Atrium Health family and the community.

Read Dr. Robicsek’s obituary