EDINBURG, RGV – Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, a former president of UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, says he cannot advocate for or against a healthcare district in Hidalgo County.

However, he says he can tell Hidalgo County voters what a healthcare district has done for Bexar County and San Antonio. “The healthcare district was critical for San Antonio,” Cigarroa said.

Cigarroa made his comments in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian immediately following a news conference held recently at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. The news conference was not related to the healthcare district or the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

“I was at the ribbon-cutting with my father when the medical school in San Antonio was being built. It was nothing but a dairy field. That was in the 1960s. Fifty years later it is a billion-dollar enterprise. It is our No. 1 economic engine,” Cigarroa said.

“So, knowing that, I believe the same growth will happen here (in the Rio Grande Valley) but faster because you all are ahead of the game compared to where San Antonio was in the 1960s.”

Asked if a healthcare district was an important part of that growth, Cigarroa said: “I believe that a health district is a piece of the puzzle. No one part can solve it all but every part is exceedingly important to enhance the healthcare of this community. I see it as an important piece of the puzzle.”

Cigarroa, a renowned transplant surgeon, knows the healthcare scene in South Texas very well. He was born into a medical family in Laredo. His father, Joaquin Cigarroa, was the first Harvard University medical student from the South Texas border region. Like his father, Francisco Cigarroa returned to the border region to practice, after first studying at Yale University and serving as chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital ‒ the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

In particular, Cigarroa knows how the healthcare industry has helped transformed San Antonio. He was the first Hispanic president of UT Health Science Center-San Antonio and now serves there as a director of transplantation services.

Cigarroa was also a key player in the creation of UT-Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine. He was chancellor of the UT System when the university was developed.

“One of the reasons I never listened to the doubters, to the critics, about why not build a medical school here in the Rio Grande Valley is that the same critics existed in the 1950s and 1960s in San Antonio. Community leaders in the 1950s were saying, we want a medical school in San Antonio. There were so many critics. Critics in Houston and Dallas saying they should not have a medical school there,” Cigarroa said.

“Anyhow, they persevered. But the Legislature decided, let’s put some little challenges out there. So, the Legislature said, we will be inclined to build a medical school but the San Antonio community needs to build a primary teaching hospital and a health district to support the teaching hospital and to support a partnership with the medical school.

“The Legislature thought, probably San Antonio is not going to get that done because it requires raising a tax and it requires leveraging funds and they probably won’t get their act together. Well, the San Antonio and Bexar County community proved them wrong.”

Hidalgo County voters get the chance to create or not create a healthcare district in an election in November. Asked if a medical school can thrive without a healthcare district, Cigarroa answered affirmatively but with a proviso.

“Yes. There are over 150 medical schools in the nation, private and public. But when you are part of a public university system, where we are taking care of many of the under-served, and where we are trying to provide access to healthcare where access is sometimes limited, then for public healthcare systems – like the affiliation between Southwestern and Parkland in Dallas, or the affiliation between UT Health Science Center Houston and the many hospitals over there – you see that these healthcare districts become an important part of enhancing healthcare to the community and in turn, through partnerships, become an important part of allowing the medical educational mission and clinical mission to prosper.”

The Valley’s medical school was created by the Legislature at the same time a medical school was being created in Austin, Texas. Asked how things are going with the Austin school, Cigarroa said:

“I think the community of Travis County and Austin saw this very quickly and put that (a healthcare district) in place very quickly for the Dell Medical School, but not just for the Dell Medical School. It was to improve the health of the community in regards to access to healthcare and regards to mental health and regards to oncology. A sophisticated area like Austin is still not where Houston and Dallas is, or even San Antonio,” Cigarroa said.

“So, that (a healthcare district) is a part of the puzzle. I see that being an important part of the puzzle here. So, I am glad that the ability to vote for this is occurring here and I think the voters will ultimately make the decision. But, I see this as a real issue that people need to deliberate on and vote their conscience. History tells us it has been a great thing to enhance healthcare.”

Especially in San Antonio? Cigarroa answered affirmatively.

“One of my arguments to the Legislature about creating a medical school was, look what it has done in San Antonio. I think you all can make it happen quicker here in the Valley because of the foundation that already exists. Just drive here to Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. I guarantee you, this foundation did not exist in San Antonio in the 1960s.”

Listening to Cigarroa answer questions from a reporter was Dr. Carlos Cardenas, interim CEO of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Like other physicians at DHR, Cardenas is a big supporter of a healthcare district for Hidalgo County.

“The healthcare district here is the glue that will hold this whole thing together and make it possible for us to continue to have top flight teaching programs, help to develop the base and the infrastructure that we need to be able to develop research that is going to help us to solve the problems that plague our community, diabetes being at the top of that list,” Cardenas told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We, Francisco and I, both treat liver disease that happens to people that have diabetes. It is a real problem. But I think the answer and the solutions are going to be found right here. That is all part of this equation.”

Cigarroa noted that his successor as chancellor of UT System, William H. McRaven, had recently participated in a forum in Edinburg that included discussion about the UTRGV School of Medicine and a healthcare district for Hidalgo County. “In his deliberations with the audience, Chancellor McRaven compared the potential here with what has happened in San Antonio. My vision resonates with what he was saying,” Cigarroa said.

Asked if voters have been given sufficient information to make an informed decision about a healthcare district, Cigarroa said: “Carlos (Cardenas) and I have learned, you cannot communicate enough.” Cardenas agreed. “We have to tell this story this over and over and over again.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Dr. Francisco Cigarroa of UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, and Dr. Carlos Cardenas, interim CEO of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a two-part series on the subject of a healthcare district for Hidalgo County and its relationship with UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. Click here to read Part Two.