Aldo R. Castañeda, MD
Aldo R. Castañeda was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1930 to Guatemalan parents. At five years old, his family moved to Munich, Germany, for his father’s medical training. He was in third grade when World War II began. By 1941, because they were Guatemalan citizens, the Castañeda family was viewed as enemy foreigners and not allowed to leave Germany. Many of Castañeda’s formative years were spent in Nazi Germany, which dramatically influenced his approach to life and education. His family was ultimately able to leave Germany in 1946. While at a meeting in Poland in 2008, Castañeda gave an address retelling the story of his life during World War II, including surviving in the basement of his family home while the structure above ground was destroyed by a bomb during an air raid when he was 14 years old.
This story provides just a glimpse into the life experiences that created this complex man. Castañeda returned to Europe to complete his college requirements at the Institutauf dem Rosenberg in St Gallen, Switzerland. With growing concerns for a possible third World War, he left Europe in 1951 for Guatemala to study medicine. He soon was named the best medical student every year following his first. In 1958, he received the Justo Rufino Barrios award as the best student at the University of Guatemala. His graduation thesis was entitled ‘‘Open Heart Surgery: An Experimental Study.’’ It was based on his medical student research that was performed in 1956-1957. This area of research is quite notable when one realizes that the history of cardiac surgery had just begun in 1952 with the first open heart surgery at the University of Minnesota in the United States. His innovative laboratory research represented the first attempts at open heart surgery anywhere in Central America.
Castañeda completed his surgical residency at the prestigious University of Minnesota, the birthplace of open heart surgery, and a pioneering and outstanding academic training program. Castañeda was initially accepted for a one-year trial period. Within six months he was offered an opportunity to remain for his entire residency. He received his doctorate in experimental surgery in 1963, the same year he finished his surgical training. Upon completion of his training he became a faculty member and quickly moved through the academic ranks, achieving full professor status in just seven years. Ultimately, Castañeda stayed at the University of Minnesota for 14 years as a resident, fellow, and faculty member.
In 1972, at age 42 years, he was recruited as chief of the world’s preeminent congenital heart surgery program at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 1975, he became the William E. Ladd Professor of Child Surgery at Harvard Medical School and in 1981 became surgeon-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital. He remained in those positions until his retirement in 1995 after spending 23 years changing the way congenital heart surgery is performed around the world and directly influencing and inspiring countless surgeons. His interpersonal skills helped in the creation of a programmatic approach to congenital heart disease that has become the model of collaboration for pediatric cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, and nurses the world over.
Castañeda’s spirit and drive have been infused throughout the field of congenital heart surgery. He is most noted for three major contributions to the field: neonatal and early corrective surgery for complex congenital heart disease; a programmatic approach to the care of patients with congenital heart disease; and, his legacy, a fully functional and independent congenital heart surgery program in Guatemala. He once stated, ‘‘All our actions must be directed, first and foremost, to the relief of human suffering.” This is evident through his dedication to the profession, education of trainees, clinical advancements, and passion for building both a world-renowned, high-technology congenital heart surgery program within the booming United States health care system and a viable, self-sustaining, and high-quality congenital heart surgery center in Guatemala.
Those of us in the field of congenital heart surgery know that every surgeon in the profession has been in some way or another touched by his approach to patient care, education, and collaboration. As a teacher and mentor, he has directly trained more than 100 pediatric cardiac surgeons, 44 of whom have become heads of programs for pediatric cardiac surgery around the world. Many receive accolades such as technically brilliant, innovative, and driven; but never has there been a leader in our profession who is also repeatedly noted as a ‘‘cherished’’ surgeon ‘‘held in great affection’’ by peers, trainees, and collaborators.
Aldo Castañeda, MD, PhD is unique in the emotions that are conjured when his name is mentioned.
Information obtained from: J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 2017;153:505-8