Texas Medical Center Names New President
Cardiothoracic surgeon Robert C. Robbins, M.D., center, conducts a variety of surgeries, including bypasses, valve replacements, aortic surgeries, heart pump implants and transplants, to help patients return to health. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
By Ronda Wendler | Texas Medical Center News
A renowned cardiothoracic surgeon and scientist from Stanford University will take the helm as Texas Medical Center president and CEO Nov. 5.
Robert C. Robbins, M.D., currently a professor and chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford and director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, says that for years he’s been a fan of the leading-edge research and life-saving treatments that take place every day in the Texas Medical Center.
“I have great respect and admiration for what takes place in the Texas Medical Center,” Robbins said, “and I’m humbled to have been selected and entrusted with this leadership position.”
Robbins, 54, was selected from an initial pool of 24 candidates, said TMC board of directors Chairman David Underwood, who also chaired the presidential search committee.
“We are fortunate to have such an outstanding and experienced physician to lead our organization,” said Underwood, “and we look forward to working with him as the Texas Medical Center continues to grow and move forward, building on the solid foundation and record growth achieved by Dr. Richard Wainerdi during his 28 highly successful years as TMC president.”
Wainerdi will retire Jan. 1 and will assume the title of Texas Medical Center president emeritus.
“I fully expect that Dr. Robbins will guide and support the TMC institutions through the major changes in health care which are ahead of us,” Wainerdi said, “and I urge everyone to offer him the same support and kindness they gave me for 28 years.”
Robbins was born and raised in a small town in Mississippi, where he was the quarterback on his high school football team. He dreamed of playing for Ole Miss, then turning pro.
“I quickly learned I wasn’t big enough or good enough to play college football,” he said.
Instead, he enrolled in Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. From there, he went on to the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss,” not as a football player but as a medical student. After earning his medical degree in 1983, Robbins completed his general surgery internship and residency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1989. In 1992 he completed a cardiothoracic surgery residency at Stanford, where he was chief resident. Afterward, he carried out postdoctoral fellowships in pediatric congenital heart surgery at Emory University in Atlanta and Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.
Along the way, he spent two years as a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health and six months as a postdoctoral fellow in cardiothoracic transplantation at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
“All in all, I trained for about 20 years to become a cardiothoracic surgeon,” said Robbins, who also heads the Stanford Heart, Heart-Lung, and Lung Transplant Program. “It’s a long road, but a rewarding one.”
Today, he’s recognized as one of the world’s most respected cardiothoracic surgeons. His 75-page resume includes more than 300 peer-reviewed journal articles, 30 book chapters, and 80 invited lectures, plus numerous honors and awards, grants and various leadership and advisory roles. Physician colleagues from around the world regularly call him for advice on treating a variety of complex cardiac diseases.
To be a heart surgeon is a privilege, especially in light of the way medicine is practiced today, Robbins said.
“Instead of being dictated by managed care contracts and allowed 15 minutes to see each patient, I’m fortunate to have the time to really get to know my patients,” he said. “I want to know their hopes for the future, and I want to help them achieve their dreams.”
He asks each patient, “What can I help you do that you can’t do today?” Patients tell Robbins they want to take a dream vacation, live to celebrate an upcoming wedding anniversary, attend a child’s graduation, or witness the birth of a grandchild.
“I ask patients to send me a photo of themselves a year after undergoing treatment, doing what they love to do and what they couldn’t do when they were so ill,” Robbins said.
His office is peppered with photos documenting such success stories, including one from a young British patient named Joe Matthews, also known as “English Joe.”
At age 18, Joe left his home-town of Lowestoft, a small fishing village in England, to attend college in California where he played on his school’s rugby team. Recruiters quickly recognized his talent, and pegged him to turn pro after graduation.
But on Feb. 22, 2006, life took a dramatic turn. Or as Joe says, quoting an old English saying, “Sometimes life has a good sting in its tail.”
On that morning, Joe visited the college doctor, complaining of extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. An X-ray revealed he had an enlarged heart and fluid on the lungs. Joe was rushed from his college clinic to a nearby hospital, where he was stabilized then transferred to Stanford Hospital. A team of cardiac experts determined a heart transplant was his only hope. Robert Robbins was the doctor who broke the news.
“Dr. Robbins is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met,” Joe said. “He sat on the edge of my bed and told me I had two choices – I could get a heart transplant or I could die. He gave me and my mum and dad, who had just arrived emotionally wrecked from England, complete confidence that my outcome would be good.”
Robbins implanted Joe with a heart pump, which helped Joe’s failing heart, now swollen to the size of a volleyball, keep pumping until a donor heart could be located. On April 3, 2006, a donor heart became available and Stanford’s highly skilled transplant team placed Joe’s new heart in his chest.
While recovering, Joe’s competitive sports persona kicked in, and he vowed he’d be discharged from the hospital sooner than any other transplant patient in history. A week later, he left the hospital and set the record as intended.
Today, Joe participates in regional and worldwide games where transplant patients compete against each other, much like the Olympics. He’s won gold, silver and bronze medals in a number of sports, including rugby – naturally – as well as track-and-field, cycling and snowboarding.
To promote organ donation and demonstrate “how good life can be after a transplant,” he’s created a website at www.EnglishJoe.net. The site, with his favorite electro-pop music pulsing in the background, tells Joe’s story and features photos and videos of him surfing, sprinting, and playing rugby, all post-transplant.
“Somewhere, a man or woman or child may be sitting in a hospital bed, awaiting a transplant, thinking they’ll be incapacitated from now on. I’m here to show them otherwise,” said Joe, who’s eagerly anticipating the 2013 World Transplant Games in Durban, South Africa.
Why Joe’s heart failed remains a mystery, as do more than half of the heart failure cases that, like Joe’s, are classified as “idiopathic cardiomyopathy,” which translates to “damage to the heart muscle, unknown cause.”
This is why research is so important, Robbins said.
“With every clinical or scientific study completed, we add another layer to our medical knowledge, which ultimately helps us continue improving patients’ treatments.”
In the research realm, Robbins has served as principal investigator for a number of government and industry-funded grants. His key research interests lie in stem cell therapy for the treatment of congestive heart failure, genetic determinants of disease, personalized medicine in which treatments are tailored to each patient’s genetic profile, and tissue engineering of human blood vessels.
Less than two months ago, he received a $20 million grant from California’s stem cell agency – the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – to turn embryonic stem cells into cardiomyocites, the kind of cells that can evolve into heart muscle. Funding from the grant will make it possible to produce sufficient quantities of cells for clinical therapy and conduct the laboratory work and preliminary testing needed to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a clinical trial. The plan is to carry out the trial with patients whose disease is so advanced that they are on a waiting list for a heart transplant. Because the grant is a state grant, it will remain in California and will not move with Robbins to Texas.
Robbins is president of the American Heart Association-Western States affiliate, and past president of the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation, Western Thoracic Surgical Association and the Bay Area Society of Thoracic Surgeons. He’s served on the board of directors of several public and private companies and currently is on the board of directors for Cytograft Tissue Engineering Inc. and Stem Cell Theronostics.
He is a manuscript reviewer for a number of periodicals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and Annals of Thoracic Surgery. He also serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Cardiac Surgery Digest, the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation and Innovations, and is a former guest editor for the surgical supplement of the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.
Robbins says he’s looking forward to Gulf seafood and barbecue when he arrives in Houston. “Remember, I’m a southern boy,” said the Mississippi native. An avid football fan, Robbins says he’ll support the Texans. “Look for me at Reliant Stadium,” he said.
The first thing he wants to accomplish in Houston is to meet and build trust with his Texas Medical Center colleagues, learn about what they are striving to achieve, and identify ways to help them succeed.
“I want to bring people together and promote collaboration,” Robbins said. “The collective brainpower in the Texas Medical Center is awe-inspiring. If we get this right and optimize our combined power, Texas Medical Center institutions will become world leaders in the future of health care.”
Robbins and his wife Debra, an attorney, have two college-age sons – Craig, a freshman business major at Ole Miss, and Clay, a junior economics major and wide receiver on the football team at Dartmouth.
Robbins said he’s had a wonderful career, and it took something very special to convince him to leave Stanford.
“That something special,” he said, “is the Texas Medical Center.”