University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Courtesy photo.
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

Each year in September, the bioscience and medical community of San Antonio gathers together to honor a major leader in their field with the prestigious Julio Palmaz Award. The award is presented by BioMed SA, a nonprofit born out the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s 2005 Economic Outlook Conference as a way to promote a sector of the city’s economy that employs 1/6th of the population and has an economic impact of more than $30 billion dollars.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa
Dr. Francisco Cigarroa

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa will be honored this year for his tireless efforts to advance patient safety and medical facilities throughout Texas. Dr. Cigarroa is a prestigious pediatric transplant surgeon and the driving force behind efforts to establish medical schools in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley as the Chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) System.

Typically the award honors those who have invented devices that have made major contributions to the fields of medicine and bioscience, but Dr. Cigarroa’s initiatives are equally as powerful. He will be honored during the ninth annual award banquet on Thursday, Sept. 18 at The Vista at Valero.

Named after Julio Palmaz, the inventor of the Palmaz stent – twice listed as one of the 10 most influential patents by IP World Magazine – the award was developed in 2005 by BioMed SA and Henry Cisneros as a way to increase awareness of the bioscience sector and honor the men and women who have led the biggest advancements in the field.

“We are thrilled to honor Dr. Cigarroa with this year’s award,” said Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA. “In 2005, when we went to create the award, we first went to Dr. Cigarroa who was then the Dean of the UT Health Science Center for his permission to name the award after Dr. Palmaz. (Palmaz) worked at the Health Science Center. We thought it would be a nice gesture since the UTHSCSA name would always be associated with the award.

BioMedSA President Ann Stevens
BioMedSA President Ann Stevens

“Even back then Dr. Cigarroa was 100% on board. He was honored to have us use the name. Who would have guessed that nine years later the award would return full-circle to the man who gave us permission to use the Palmaz namesake?” she added.

I asked Dr. Cigarroa what he thought about receiving an award he helped establish.

“When I joined the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio as a young transplant surgeon, Julio Palmaz already was one of the most famous interventional radiologists in the world. It was such an incredible opportunity – and lesson – to work with a physician who was committed to saving not just his patients, but as many patients as possible,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “And now, to be a recipient of the award named for my mentor, friend and colleague is such a special honor.”

Just as the Palmaz award is returning full-circle to honor one of the men who helped establish its prestige, so too is Dr. Cigarroa as he prepares to return to the UT Health Science Center (top photo) next February as the head of Pediatric Transplant Surgery.

Born in Laredo, one of 10 children, Dr. Cigarroa graduated from Yale in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and earned his medical degree in 1983 from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. After spending a dozen years of post-graduate training at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Cigarroa returned to South Texas in 1995 when he accepted a position as the director of Pediatric Surgery at the UT Health Science Center.  In this role, Dr. Cigarroa led a team that performed the first successful small bowel transplant in a child.

In 2000, Dr. Cigarroa became president of the UT Health Science Center, establishing the Regional Academic Health Center in the Valley, spearheading a new 190,000-square-foot research center for the South Texas Medical Center and co-created the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics with the aim to prepare tomorrow’s healers to act with compassion and justice.

In 2009, Dr. Cigarroa took over as chancellor of the UT System, becoming the first Hispanic head of a major collegiate system in the nation’s history. While in office, Dr. Cigarroa not only continued to perform kidney and liver transplants at University Transplant Center but also worked tirelessly to bring medical schools to both Austin and the underserved Lower Rio Grande Valley.

“South Texas has one of the worst doctor-patient ratios in the state of Texas – for every 100,000 people living in South Texas, there are just 124 doctors,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “(A new facility) will provide a much-needed increase to the physician population in this underserved area to help the already gifted physicians in this region, and it will also help increase the number of specialists important to the region’s health.”

While the Julio Palmaz award is an honor for Dr. Cigarroa, it is equally big for San Antonio as a reminder to the community that incredible advancements in health care and the biosciences are happening regularly in their hometown, Dr. Palmaz said.

Previous Palmaz Award winners Mauli Agrawal (left-2010) and Larry Miller (right-2012) from San Antonio join 2013 recipient Robert Langer of Boston (second from left) and namesake Julio Palmaz at this year's BioMed SA Palmaz Award Dinner. Photo by Joel Spring.
Previous Palmaz Award winners Mauli Agrawal (left-2010) and Larry Miller (right-2012) from San Antonio join 2013 recipient Robert Langer of Boston (second from left) and namesake Julio Palmaz at the 2013 BioMed SA Palmaz Award Dinner. Photo by Joel Spring.

“San Antonio is well-known for its rich culture and history, but we are working to put the city on the map as a destination for world-class health care,” he said. “Both UTHSCSA and UTSA are critical to translational science in San Antonio’s effort to improve the quality of life globally.”

Last year’s award went to the famed engineer Robert Langer for his service to the field of medical research and bioengineering, and the 2012 award was given to award-winning physician, inventor, and chief medical officer of Vidacare CorporationDr. Larry Miller.

Dr. Cigarroa, like the eight previous recipients, is being honored for the work he has already contributed to the medical field and celebrated for his future work in San Antonio.

“Over the six years that I will have served as chancellor (of the UT System), I am proud to say we have been able to implement numerous transformational initiatives,” he said. “But now it is time to return to saving one life at a time.”

*Featured/top image: University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Courtesy photo.


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John Burnam is the co-founder and principal of Burnam | Gray, a nonprofit consulting firm that seeks to help agencies ignite and scale best practices.