In Memoriam Tribute to Robert A. O'Rourke, MD (1936–2011)
Robert A. O'Rourke, MD, one of the premier clinical cardiologists in the world, recently died peacefully at home in San Antonio, Texas, at 74 years of age from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was the Charles Conrad Brown Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and Director of the Cardiovascular Division, positions held until 1994. Since then, Dr O'Rourke became Professor Emeritus, but he continued to maintain an outstanding profile role as an educator at the local, national and international levels, as well as a prolific scholar with a stamp of high credibility in all of his articles, edited books, and lectures. He served on several editorial boards of national and international cardiovascular medicine journals, and he chaired numerous committees for the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Dr O'Rourke was honored as Master of the American College of Cardiology (MACC) and Master of the American College of Physicians (MACP).
Born in San Francisco, California, Dr O'Rourke had the fortune to be profoundly influenced by some of the most prominent cardiovascular specialists and investigators of the second part of the 20th century. Thus, he worked under Dr W. Proctor Harvey, when he was a cardiology fellow at Georgetown University Hospital, under Dr Julius Comroe, Jr. when he was a research fellow at the California Cardiovascular Research Institute in San Francisco, and under Dr Eugene Braunwald when he was Director of Clinical Cardiology at the University of California, San Diego. Therefore, it is not by chance that Dr O'Rourke evolved, not only as an outstanding scholar, but also as a unique individual most genuinely critical and demanding of the highest standards from his colleagues and friends. It is about this human aspect that I would like to comment, since Bob, as he was known to me, and I worked very closely together for about 12 years on 3 editions of Hurst's The Heart, where he served as coeditor. I will comment on 3 experiences, each exemplifying his extraordinary personality and humanity.
1) Around 1996, I was asked to consider being a leading editor of Hurst's The Heart. Under urgent pressure to move rapidly for the following edition, Bob called me on behalf of the other coeditors. I still keep a record of the conversation, which went like this: “Valentin, if you take such responsibility be sure you fully commit yourself to the job and work hard to succeed; we are quite late in terms of meeting a reasonable deadline for the upcoming edition! I know you professionally, and you know me, but this is a business; Braunwald is moving fast ahead with his next edition. On 1 hand, you urgently must integrate the editorial team, but, on the other hand, and speaking on behalf of the other coeditors, we need to trust you for the job and, unfortunately, this takes time. I hope you got the message.” I was left speechless, but I got the message. As it was proven over the years, Bob was a very sincere person, a straight shooter. As a result, he was a man honored by an unconditional confidence from his colleagues, friends, and patients.
2) Every year, in New York City, we have a 3-day seminar, sponsored by the American College of Cardiology, which is attended by over 2000 cardiologists from around the world. Its success relates to the caliber of the speakers as well as to the rapid integration of all emerging topics of interest. Accordingly, the highly respected speakers are reminded to be strict in keeping their presentation within their allotted time. At the New York seminar of 2003, Bob was asked to present the topic “Consensus Guidelines Versus Clinical Judgment,” both aspects of great interest to him. His allotted time was 20 minutes, but he became so passionately engaged with the subject that at about 35 minutes he was still speaking. I got up and said “Bob, your time was over 15 minutes ago.” From the podium he appeared upset and replied loudly, “I am sorry, Valentin, but this is a golden opportunity to tell this audience that cardiology is not all that technology, but rather must be evidence-based and an art of thinking and talking to the patient.” The audience laughed, and I allowed him 5 additional minutes. Indeed, Bob's tremendous passion in defending what he used to call “the cognitive cardiologist” was not a personal bias, but rather an expression of his committed advocacy in favor of the patient.
3) During the last 3 to 4 months of his life, my telephone rang several times from a caller identified as Robert O'Rourke. Of course, I always answered, but on the other side of the line there was no response, or the response was unintelligible as a result of his severe Parkinson's. I knew each time that Bob wanted to talk, that he wanted to communicate something important for him or for me. I could only respond by establishing a monologue with the highest sensitivity and respect toward him. Nevertheless, I have never experienced so much frustration as to have to end the call with someone who was expressing 2 timeless and eternal virtues: friendship and loyalty.
Dr Robert O'Rourke is survived by Suzann, his wife of 47 years, and by 3 sons, 1 daughter, and 8 grandchildren. He will be missed as an outstanding and gifted educator, but on a more personal basis, those of us who knew him well must pay the most profound tribute to Bob as a human being; he benefitted from the unconditional confidence of his colleagues, as an ultimate advocate for the patient, and as possessing the eternal virtues of deep friendship and loyalty.
- © 2011 American Heart Association, Inc.