Honoring a Son of the Canary Islands and ‘Legendary’ Surgeon Who Made a Home in SA

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Henry Cisneros gives a eulogy during Alfonso Chiscano's memorial service at San Fernando Cathedral.

They sailed across the ocean sea. They were audacious Spanish explorers commissioned by King Fernando and Queen Isabella, who sat astride the most powerful empire of its time. The King and Queen were petitioned by the Italian sea captain Christopher Columbus to sponsor an expedition to find a new route to Asia which he believed could be reached by sailing west because the world is round. Cristobal Colon arrived at what he believed to be India or China in 1492. Map makers now know that he had landed in what is now the Dominican Republic. Columbus set in motion explorations that led to the discovery of South America, Mexico, and Florida. These Spaniards were courageous, tenacious, driven, committed to the Catholic faith, and determined to make history. They did. 

The connection between these explorations which changed the course of world history and today’s commemoration of the life of Dr. Alfonso Chiscano is twofold. First, the Spanish national character celebrated bravery, adventure, risk, discipline, determination, and stamina. The best example of the Spanish character I have ever known is Dr. Alfonso Chiscano.  

The second connection between the era of Spanish glory and today’s commemoration is that from 1492 forward, most of the Spanish expeditions that set out for the New World set out from the Spanish province of the Canary Islands. Father Diego, a priest exhorting Canary Islanders before a sea voyage in the 1700s is quoted in Samuel Buck’s book, Yanaguana’s Successors: “These ancient islands have been the starting point of every important voyage of discovery or development in the western world up to this moment. Columbus stopped at Grand Canary in 1492 and sailed on September 1st of that year for the Canary Island of Gomera from which place he started westward into the unknown sea.” And then in 1731, 16 families totaling 56 civilian settlers embarked from the Canary Islands and traveled the rugged ground from Vera Cruz in Mexico to Quintlan to Queretaro to Saltillo to the fortress and missions at San Antonio de Valero.

Dr. Alfonso Chiscano was born in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands on July 22, 1938. It was in the years leading up to WWII and there were shortages of food, fuel, and jobs. Young Alfonso, called Chico by his family and friends, studied at the German school Buenas Pias on the large island of Tenerife. He later attended a Jesuit school in Madrid and the National Institute of Santa Cruz in Tenerife. As Chico began to explore what he wanted to do with his life, he noted that he had a cousin who was a physician and enjoyed watching him in his practice. He became attracted to the idea of being able to help people in their moments of physical distress. So he made his ambitions known and received a scholarship from the Cabildo de Tenerife, the municipal government of Tenerife. It was a small award of $30 per month for six years but it would help make it possible to study medicine. In an interview several years ago, Chico was quoted: “My father was a poor man, but he worked very hard to give us the best education he could buy. If it were not for that scholarship, I would be selling Coca Cola’s in a bar somewhere.” In 1962, Dr. Chiscano earned a degree in medicine at the University of Barcelona.

As he graduated from medical school, the newly titled Dr. Chiscano knew that he wanted to be a surgeon and knew it would be best to complete a residency at a medical school in the United States. He became a resident at Wayne State University in Detroit where he pursued a specialty in cardiac and thoracic surgery. He spent the next 10 years working with and observing some of the most prominent surgeons in the field. Detroit was very good to Dr. Chiscano in other ways as well. But let’s let him describe it: “I met a beautiful lady who was a nurse working with me. Together we started the first intensive care unit in Detroit in 1963. We stuck together and after seven years we got married.” In 1971, Dr. Chiscano was awarded a clinical fellowship in cardiovascular surgery to work at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston directly under the supervision of the renowned heart pioneer, Dr. Denton Cooley. 

One weekend in Houston, Mary Alice suggested that they make the three-hour drive to San Antonio and visit the River Walk and the Alamo. Dr. Chiscano later said “We went. It was beautiful. At the Alamo I found this huge engraved stone which said the city was founded by Canary Islanders in 1731. I thought, what are you talking about, I don’t know anything about this.” On that same trip they visited San Fernando Cathedral, home to La Virgen de la Candelaria, Our Lady as patron of the Canary Islands. San Antonio’s respectful treatment of the legacy of Spain, the celebrated role of the Canary Island founders of the municipio, the majesty of this church named for San Fernando of Spain – all these put him in a frame of mind to think about moving to San Antonio. Soon the matter was settled. Chico, Mary Alice, and two children would do just as the Canary Islanders had done: bring their prodigious skills to San Antonio.

Dr. Chiscano began his practice as a cardiac surgeon in San Antonio in 1962. His professional accomplishments in San Antonio are legendary. Dr Chiscano and his team performed surgeries for more than 6,000 heart patients. People came from all over the world to have their hearts repaired by this genius surgeon. I remember in the years that I was mayor meeting the host of the top-rated Mexican Sunday night television program, Raul Velasco of Siempre en Domingo. He told me then that the only person he would trust to touch his heart would be Alfonso Chiscano, and some months later Raul Velasco was in San Antonio for Dr. Chiscano to perform life- saving surgery.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Alfonso Chiscano’s portrait is displayed at the front of San Fernando Cathedral.

When Dr. Chiscano retired from the active practice of cardiac surgery, he assumed the chair of the Alfonso Chiscano Professorship for Cardiovascular Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.  He has been awarded every recognition that can be bestowed upon a cardiac surgeon. He is senior member of the Society of Thoracic Surgery and the American College of Cardiology. He is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  

Even with a busy medical practice and with a busy family life – Chico, Mary Alice, Kristie, Carina, Steven, and Todd, all overachievers in the Chiscano tradition – Dr. Chiscano committed himself to his adopted community and particularly to explaining and uplifting the story of Spain and the Canary Islands. I first met Dr. Chiscano when he organized trips to the Canary Islands to cement trade relationships between the Islands and San Antonio. He committed himself to assisting the local Association of Canary Islander Descendants. Each March 9th, he participated in the annual celebration of the day on which they arrived, and the anniversary of the creation of the first ayuntamiento, or municipal council, on Aug. 17, 1731. And he created forums to celebrate the Spanish language, or as he called it, “the language of Cervantes.”

Over the years he participated himself in medical exchanges designed to establish state-of-the-art medical procedures in the Canary Islands. He lectured at the Campo de Excelencia in Gran Canaria. As much as he did to promote the Canary Islands here, he did an equal amount to promote San Antonio there. Just as he helped identify Main Plaza here as Playa de las Islas, he saw to it that there is a Playa de San Antonio in Las Canarias. It is fitting that there is a street named Avenida Dr. Chiscano in the island of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. His response to the naming of the street was “I didn’t deserve it, but at least it is near a hospital.”

It is impossible to capture in a few words the immensity of Dr. Alfonso Chiscano’s contributions to medicine and to San Antonio, impossible to capture the essence of this indomitable spirit, his prodigious energy, his lively and creative mind, his persuasive skills, and his heartfelt passion for everything he did. As co-chair and popularly designated “father” of the Tricentennial Commission, he championed the installation of the statues in front of the Bexar County Courthouse which celebrate the lives of the 56 settlers who founded the civil settlement of San Antonio. Chico never stopped working.

Just three weeks ago, near the end of his physical energy, Dr. Chiscano visited me in my office. He said he had one more project to discuss. He said he wanted to see a statue of Nelson and Tracy Wolff established on San Pedro Creek because they have together done so much for our community.  Canary Islanders excavated the San Pedro Canal, as they called it, to irrigate their fields north of the settlement. In my office Dr. Chiscano, accompanied by a sculptor, laid out his plan. At the end of our conversation Dr. Chiscano began to softly weep and then to sob. I had seen him become emotional about the things in which he passionately believes: insistent, powerful, urgent. But I was surprised by his next words: “Mijo, I am bringing this because you have to assure San Antonio will see it through. My time is very short. My time is finished. This needs to be done.” I have started to follow up on Chico’s request. Nelson and Tracy have been very humble about proceeding, but Chico was right, we as a community need to do this. Not only because Nelson and Tracy deserve it, but because it is Alfonso Chiscano’s last project for our community, a last directive from a man whose directives should not be taken lightly.  This Tuesday, three days ago, exactly a week after Chico’s death, I received this envelope in my office. The return address says Dr. Alfonso Chiscano. I was startled. My assistant handed it to me for me to open it. When I opened it there was a note with Chico’s handwritten encouragement to get the project going and his commitment to a check.

It is classic Chico. He sees connections others of us don’t, he formulates an idea, he frames it into a plan, he engages other people, approaches them passionately and argues persuasively, and it gets done.

I started my remarks today by describing the early history that resulted in the San Antonio we know. The sheer determination of the Spanish explorers who trekked across this continent for the glory of Spain. And in due course settlers came to our verdant stream of flowing river, enduring the hot, dry clime of South Texas. Extraordinary people. Strong people. Spanish character. We are blessed that there came to us an extraordinary man of that Spanish lineage in the person of Dr. Alfonso Chiscano. He brought excellence in medicine to our city. He added an incredible treasury of ideas, projects, physical improvements, cultural exchanges, and dreams. This son of Espana, this son of Las Canarias, did his part.

This fortunate city expresses its deep gratitude to the Chiscano family – Mary Alice, Kristie, Steve, Carina, Todd. Jeff, Jon, and Kimberly and eight beautiful grandchildren. This fortunate city that is San Antonio is greater because you share Dr. Chiscano with all of us.

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