The Higher Calling

Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, wrote this article in January 2002 for the Bexar County Medical Society.


Dr. Francisco G. CigarroaThe Health Science Center began as a dream, planted in a remote pasture on the far northwest side of town. Only about half a million people lived in the city back then, but local visionaries, leaders in the medical and business communities, and a group of lawmakers thought it was the perfect place to cultivate a new generation of physicians – and, later, dentists, nurses and other health care professionals. They were right.


Today, the Health Science Center is a vital part of San Antonio’s $8 billion biotechnology industry, an industry that grew more than 7.5 percent last year and provides 15 percent of the jobs in San Antonio. Our own university educates 200 new physicians each year, provides a vast amount of continuing medical education, treats over a million patients each year, and offers more than $80 million in uncompensated care to the medically indigent. The numbers are astounding. But after all, we became doctors to help, heal, and in the case of our fine faculty, to educate.


That concept of helping and healing can easily be lost today, as red tape and many layers of bureaucracy may suppress the pure joy of healing. As I enter my second year at the helm of a premier health professions institution, I want to make sure doctors aren’t losing focus of the task at hand: the higher calling of medicine. To that end, I have put myself on call every other weekend and continue to do transplant surgery frequently. It puts me in constant touch with the front line of medicine and medical education, and it never fails to restore the joy of medicine to me, after long days of important, but highly administrative, details.


Another important reminder how vital our mission is occurs when I interact with our fine students. I like to drop in to see what really happens with faculty, staff and students on a typical day. On one of these occasions, I observed a new group of medical students, working with their very first patients. I watched as they anxiously tried to ask the right questions, find the right trouble spots and put into practice what they had learned. These students were determined to provide the best care, perform the best service, for the simple, fundamental joy of sending a patient home a bit healthier, and a bit happier.


I truly believe we, as health care professionals, are servants of our community. I embraced this belief as a child, learning from my father and grandfather, both outstanding physicians. Even as a young boy, my greatest joy and happiest memories are of helping my father pack the black bag, and make patient rounds.


I watched as my family set an example of service: Service to the community, service to those who may not have financial resources and service to those who had limited access to education and health care. I spent over a decade preparing to provide this type of service to the people of South Texas.


As much as I loved surgery, I knew that when I had the opportunity to become president, I could be of greater service to our medical community, to San Antonio, and the South Texas region I love.


I realized the Health Science Center had made impressive strides over the past three decades, and I now have the rare and incredible opportunity to link our pride in the past to our faith in the future.


That future begins with creating the next generation of physicians. One of my greatest priorities as president is to increase the number of doctors serving the South Texas region. We can do this by increasing the number of scholarships available to the South Texas students who wish to work in this area. I have a “no closed doors” policy here; no gifted student should be denied the chance of an education because of a lack of financial resources.


The education these students receive must be the finest available anywhere in the nation, not only for physicians, but for students at all our schools, including our top-ranked dental and nursing schools. We will now join the ranks of the country’s elite medical and graduate science schools by expanding our M.D./Ph.D. program – another one of my priorities. This program will create physician-scientists who take the latest treatment and technology straight from the bench to the bedside.


We have the $200 million endowment for cancer research in Texas. It is the largest single cancer endowment in the United States. The fund will establish the Children’s Cancer Research Center, now under construction. Many of you already know I am a cancer survivor, and I will stop at nothing to enhance our already-strong cancer programs.


We have just completed funding for our new Sam and Ann Barshop Center for Longevity and Aging Studies. We’re confident this center will be recognized as the foremost aging research institute in the world.


I will also continue to promote our city as a nationally renowned center for transplantation surgery. The Health Science Center is already home to some of the most prominent transplant surgeons in the country and ours is one of the most active programs in the nation.


The Health Science Center won’t celebrate these triumphs alone – because they aren’t ours alone. We are all partners in the health care arena, all players on the same field, working for a common good. Our university educates the health care professionals that will eventually staff your offices; you often refer the sickest patients to our specialists for the latest therapies and clinical trials. Our researchers collaborate on projects with a number of centers, including those run by the United States military.


Our combined efforts make San Antonio a better place to live. Not only does our profession boost the health of our society, we raise the caliber of our community by attracting the best and brightest minds, innovators and creators of new knowledge. Our goal, in fact, is to one day be the home of one or more Nobel Laureates. I am confident this will happen.


Together, we set an enviable standard in creating one of the country’s premier biotechnology centers for our city. And we will continue to strengthen this success by doing what we do best: keeping our focus clearly on the higher calling of medicine.


I am privileged to serve this Health Science Center, this community, and my fellow physicians.