Touching 14 Million Hearts: Houston Heart Surgeon Turns to Politics

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Trusted Leader  - June 2007   

By   Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor  

When Houston heart surgeon Rafael Espada, MD, decided to seek political office, he didn't settle for the local school board or city council. No, he decided to start at the top, or very near it.

Dr. Espada, you see, is running for vice president. Not of the United States, but of his native Guatemala.

In April, the renowned heart surgeon closed his practice at Methodist Hospital in Houston after 38 years to return to Guatemala and campaign for vice president. Dr. Espada is the running mate of Guatemalan presidential candidate Alvaro Colom. The pair, running on the center-left Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party ticket, enjoys a substantial early lead in the campaign and is considered a good bet to win.

While some might hesitate to give up a lucrative career and their home of nearly four decades, Dr. Espada sees this campaign as his chance to give a little back to the country of his birth.

"I see this as an extension of what I've been doing all these years," he said. "Instead of taking care of one or two hearts a day, I would like to take care of 14 million hearts that are in a different pathology, a different need. It's a need of development, need of growth, need of hope, and need of changes." 


Dr. Espada's decision to seek political office in Guatemala was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, he has been approached frequently over the past several elections to seek high office in Guatemala. He rejected those overtures in the past, but this year he decided the time is right.

In fact, Dr. Espada, 63, has been attracted to public service since the mid-1960s when, while still a medical student, he was invited by the U.S. State Department to visit Washington, D.C., to see firsthand how American democracy works. He spent six months working as an intern in the office of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

"He was a very open person," Dr. Espada says of Senator Kennedy. "He was always worried about everybody, but mainly for the weak or the oppressed or the people who were under injustices. That inspired me to dedicate my life to serve others."

Senator Kennedy helped arrange a meeting between Dr. Espada and Michael DeBakey, MD, which eventually led to Dr. Espada moving to Houston in 1969 to train in thoracic surgery.

Dr. Espada says he intended to return to Guatemala to practice following his training, until then-chief resident Ken Mattox, MD, pointed out that Guatemala had no hospitals or infrastructure for performing heart surgery.

Dr. Espada decided to stay in Houston a year or two to see what would happen. "I stayed a year or two at Methodist Hospital, and that became 20 years because every time I wanted to go to Guatemala there was still nothing there." 

Maintaining Ties  

Still, Dr. Espada maintained close ties with his native country, and in 1994 he took it upon himself to furnish the necessary infrastructure to provide cardiac care to Guatemala. He created a foundation to raise money and, working with the Guatemalan government, established the country's first and only heart center, known as Unidad Cardiovascular (UNICAR).

Since then, Dr. Espada has traveled to Guatemala one weekend each month to perform heart surgeries at UNICAR. The facility now sees between 600 and 800 cases each year.

"It's been a very rewarding experience, and it's given me good recognition in the area to be seen as a Guatemalan and as somebody who would like to help the people who don't have the means to have good health care," he said.

That work made Dr. Espada something of a national hero in Guatemala and prompted repeated attempts to draft him into the political scene.

It also garnered him recognition here. In 2006, he received the inaugural Methodist Hospital Humanitarian Award. He donated the $10,000 cash grant that came with the award to the foundation he created to purchase medical equipment and supplies for UNICAR.

Michael Reardon, MD, professor and chief of cardiac surgery for the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center, says Dr. Espada has traveled extensively through Central and South America working with the Ethel Kennedy Foundation.

"He really epitomizes what people think of as doctors," Dr. Reardon said. "Not somebody just taking care of individual patients but really caring about people across broad spectrums of society." 

On to Victory  

Both Drs. Reardon and Mattox think Mr. Colom and Dr. Espada's chances for victory are excellent. The first round of voting in the presidential election will be Sept. 9. With more than a dozen different parties vying for political power, it is unlikely any ticket will get a majority, so a second round of voting featuring the top two vote-getters likely will occur on Nov. 2.

The Colom-Espada ticket had a double-digit lead in April, and political observers say they have a good chance to win despite being an opposition party to the current government and despite the recent entrance of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu into the race as an independent candidate.

Austin political consultant Kelly Fero, whose firm has connections in the region, says the UNE holds the third most seats in the Guatemalan Congress. While Mr. Colom is considered the better politician, Dr. Espada is regarded as the "substantive member of the ticket" and likely will play a strong role in policy development, Mr. Fero says.

In fact, Dr. Espada says the Guatemalan vice president enjoys much more power than the U.S. equivalent. The vice president there coordinates the cabinet and plays a major role in developing programs and policy for approval by the president, he says.

If elected, Dr. Espada says his primary objectives will be to improve health care, education, and the economy in Guatemala.

"One of the big tragedies of our country is unemployment," he said. "We're running about 38 percent unemployment, which is extremely high, which explains why people have to migrate to this country. If we have jobs in our country, we can keep those people working down there, we can keep them with their families."

Dr. Espada says his motto usually is "failure is not an option," but he recognizes that nothing is certain in politics. If his party loses, he likely will remain in Guatemala and perform heart surgery at UNICAR. If they win, however, you might just see him at the top of the presidential ticket when the next elections are held four years from now.

Ken Ortolon   can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email at Ken Ortolon.   


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