Dr. Francisco Cigarroa
Dr. Francisco Cigarroa Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Growing up in Laredo, Dr. Francisco Cigarroa frequently saw his physician father make house calls, often traveling long distances to see those patients who had little financial means and no access to transportation.

He recalls each of these moments as “lessons in the importance of human dignity and respect,” which he used to shape his more than three-decade career as a renowned pediatric surgeon and education advocate.

“I grew up in an underserved area with a lot of economic disparity. Seeing my father help people and give respect, no matter a person’s [background], and them respond with love and admiration instilled in me a desire to educate myself in order to give back to the community that I was raised in,” Cigarroa said.

After completing a surgical fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, Cigarroa joined the University of Texas Health Science Center, now UT Health San Antonio, in 1995 as director of pediatric surgery. Alongside Dr. Glenn Halff, he helped build the adult liver transplant program and developed the pediatric transplant program.

Five years later, he was named president of the health science center and remained in that role for nine years before becoming chancellor of the University of Texas System in Austin – the first Hispanic to fill the role.

“I could have never imagined the opportunities that the University of Texas could give a young faculty member. They gave opportunities here that no other institution historically would have done.”

Cigarroa credits both his parents, along with the liberal arts degree he received from Yale University, with laying a foundation of adaptability, compassion, and critical thinking necessary to “transition full circle” from surgeon to administrator and back to surgeon. His co-workers credit his success to his “enthusiasm, warmth, and sincere commitment to education.”

Dr. William Henrich is president of UT Health San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / UT Health San Antonio

“[Cigarroa] understands that education can help life people into [opportunities] they never thought possible,” said Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio. “Throughout our 13-year relationship we have collaborated on innumerable projects, and with every job he has ever taken, he worked and succeeded in” improving the organization or entity.

On Nov. 10, Cigarroa received the American Medical Association’s Foundation Award for Health Education for his achievements during his time as chancellor of the UT System, where he succeeded in securing the funds necessary to create Dell Medical School at UT-Austin and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) School of Medicine.

Cigarroa told the Rivard Report that his father helped him to understand the importance of expanding educational opportunities for both students and physicians, and he influenced Cigarroa to push for medical education expansion in Texas.

“My dad said his one regret during his medical career was that he was unable to be personally involved in educating and shaping the next generation of medical students” because there was no medical school in South Texas, Cigarroa said. “I knew that a lot of other good doctors in Texas likely had the same feeling.”

Cigarroa said working in underserved communities, such as those along the border with Mexico, are rich with lessons about working in diversity, whether that be socioeconomic status or culture. “These doctors work hard and successfully overcome barriers specific to those demographics. It is important for us to work to understand them,” Cigarroa said.

Henrich, who succeeded Cigarroa as president of UT Health San Antonio, said establishing the medical school at UTRGV would “stand as one of his outstanding legacies.”

“[Cigarroa] is committed to best outcomes for all people – students, patients, and colleagues in addition to the biomedical agenda,” Henrich said.

In addition to praise from local colleagues, multiple presidential administrations have taken note of Cigarroa’s efforts toward expanding the reach of medical education and services. In 2003, President George W. Bush appointed Cigarroa to serve on his Committee on the National Medal of Science. In 2011, President Barack Obama chose Cigarroa to be a commissioner for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

At the end of October, Cigarroa took over as chair of the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit working to expand educational opportunities and promote social justice in underserved communities. “The mission of the Ford Foundation is similar to the moral compass that my parents taught me. We need to serve others and we need to do our part in reducing poverty, eliminating social injustice, and enhancing education to help others achieve their full human potential,” Cigarroa said.

“He’s an exceptional surgeon and an empathetic physician, in addition to being gracious and humble,” Halff said. “He appreciates the opportunities which he has had while, at the same time, being humble about his talents. Having his office next to mine has been like having a ray of sunshine coming into your office.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.