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Heart surgeon and a hero in his native country seeks political office

Houston, TX - 3/26/2007

For more than three decades Houston heart surgeon Dr. Rafael Espada has mended the hearts of his fellow Guatemalans for free. His countrymen have made him a national hero – now he is hoping they make him their vice president.

Espada, a cardiovascular surgeon at the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center at The Methodist Hospital, is giving up his U.S. practice to seek the office of vice president in his native country. He is the running mate of candidate Alvaro Colom in Guatemala’s September presidential election.

He will move to Guatemala in early April to devote himself to running for the political office.

One of the most widely known heart specialists in Latin America, Espada is running on a platform of improving health care and education and creating more jobs.

“If we can stimulate a healthier economy with more jobs then people can work to pay for insurance,” he said. “We can create a national health care system with private funds and it would not be a burden on the economy.”

He hopes he can turn the good will he earned by performing free surgeries for indigent Guatemalans into a mandate that will help reform the country’s health care situation. Even the most basic services in the country are priced well beyond the reach of most of the population.

“I have an enormous responsibility to the country and believe that this is the right time,” he said when he announced his candidacy on March 4. “It is a greater responsibility than to just one patient … my priority will be the hearts of 14 million Guatemalans.”

Espada has been a surgeon at The Methodist Hospital for more than 30 years. Even with a busy surgical practice, he managed to travel to Guatemala once a month to provide surgical care for indigent patients.

In the 1990s, Espada worked with the government of Guatemala and private donors to establish a heart hospital in Guatemala City. The hospital – called UNICAR – opened in 1994 and physicians there now see more than 600 adult cases annually. It is the premier heart hospital in Central America.

He accompanied a delegation led by Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, on trips to Brazil and Guatemala as part of the “Journeys For Justice.” On these trips, the delegation discussed civil rights and health care access with the presidents of both countries.

In Houston Espada continuously provided charity surgeries for local patients and has participated in benefits for the San Jose Clinic and Faith In Practice, a group that organizes medical missions around the world.

For these efforts, in 2006 Espada was awarded the inaugural Methodist Hospital Humanitarian Award. Espada donated his $10,000 cash grant to a private foundation he created in Guatemala to purchase medical equipment and supplies for UNICAR.

He created and serves as the medical director for UNICAR, a clinic providing cardiac care for Guatemala’s indigent population.

He has been a surgeon in Houston for 30 years and in 2006 Espada received the inaugural Methodist Hospital Humanitarian Award for his work in Guatemala and in Houston.