Dr. Francis Robicsek, who died Friday at the age of 94, was known to his Charlotte, North Carolina, community as a hero, saving many lives during his long career as a heart surgeon.
So instead of being buried in a traditional suit, the late doctor will be put to rest on Monday wearing the clothes that made him the hero that he was: his scrubs.
According to The Charlotte Observer, the acclaimed surgeon requested to be buried in scrubs, considered the uniform of doctors everywhere.
“That’s how he saw himself,” Dr. Geoffrey Rose, president of Sanger Heart & Vascular institute, told CNN. “In scrubs, there to serve patients.”
Robicsek, born Ferenc Robicsek in Hungary in 1925, was a pioneer in the operating room. He was one of the first doctors in Charlotte to perform heart bypass operations in the 1950s, and he helped perform Charlotte’s first heart transplant in 1986, according to the Observer.
He founded the Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and performed more than 35,000 surgeries until he retired in 1998.
“Everybody (in Charlotte) knew Dr. Robicsek and everybody had a story about how he had either operated on one of their family members or neighbors,” Rose, who knew Robicsek for nearly 25 years, said.
If there was one word that could describe Robicsek, it would be innovation, because of the numerous surgical instruments and procedures he patented to make surgeries go smoother, Rose said.
Back in 1957, Robicsek and his fellow surgeons, Dr. Paul Sanger and Dr. Fred Taylor, were set to perform the city’s first open-heart operations, Rose said. They needed a heart-lung machine, which essentially does the work of both the heart and lungs by pumping and oxygenating blood.
With barely any heart-lung machines in the US, Robicsek traveled to the Cleveland Clinic to see the one that was being used there. He came back to Charlotte and with the help of a friend who was an engineer, they built their own heart-lung machine in the friend’s garage.
For years, Robicsek loaded up that machine on the back of a pickup truck and transported it between hospitals to do heart surgery.
People also remember Robicsek for his generous heart and caring demeanor when interacting with his patients.
During the days of segregation in the US, African American patients in Charlotte had to be treated at a separate hospital called the Good Samaritan Hospital, according to the Observer.
But Robicsek wasn’t able to perform heart surgeries there so he instead arranged for black patients to be admitted to a tuberculosis hospital even though they didn’t have the disease. He would then perform their heart surgeries there, Rose said.
“Francis found ways around that to be able to provide care for all,” Rose said. “That was always his modus operandi.”
In that same vein, Rose said Robicsek took his medical expertise abroad. In the 1960s, he traveled to Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and other Central American countries to help establish cardiac surgery and pediatric intensive care programs there.
He assisted with surgeries and trained Guatemalan doctors and nurses. But the facilities there didn’t allow for cardiac catheterization, which is used to diagnose certain heart diseases, so Robicsek would help fly Guatemalan patients to Charlotte using a military transport plane, work through the weekend to do the cardiac catheterizations, then fly them back in a matter of less than 48 hours.
“What that would do is tee up surgery for the next six months because all the diagnostic work would’ve been done,” Rose said. “That type of ability to solve problems and find ways to get things done is a wonderful example of Francis’ spirit and his commitment to others.”
He then went on to help found the Guatemalan Heart Institute, which today performs 700 open-heart procedures a year, according to Carly Stephenson, a spokeswoman with Atrium Health.
Even after retiring, Robicshek continued to help hospitals in Central America by donating medical equipment in his role as vice president of the International Medical Outreach program.
Jim Olsen, senior vice president of material resource management at Atrium Health, accompanied Robicshek for many of these humanitarian trips.
“Wherever we went to (in) Central America, there was someone holding their shirt up to show Dr. Robicsek the scar from the surgery he had done on them years before,” Olsen told CNN.
While dozens of awards lined his office walls, Stephenson said Robicsek was most proud of the Surgical Humanitarianism Award from the American College of Surgeons he was awarded in 2017.