Dr. Robert T. Angel, a pioneering surgeon who performed the first open-heart surgeries in Waco and Southeast Asia, died Thursday in Waco.
Angel, who suffered from congestive heart failure, was 82. Known for his wit, his sense of humor and compassion for others, Angel performed Waco’s first open-heart surgery in 1973 with his colleague, Dr. Robert Crosthwait, at what was then Providence Hospital.
He also performed the first lung volume reduction surgery in Waco to help emphysema sufferers breathe better.
Family members say Angel knew at an early age he wanted to be a doctor because of his desire to help others. He graduated from Big Spring High School, where he met his future wife, Sue, and quarterbacked the football team to the 1953 state championship game.
He went to Baylor University and was accepted as a junior to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, an unusual feat for an underclassman. He studied under the legendary surgeons, Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley, who pioneered the field of heart transplantation.
Angel served as part of the team at Baylor College of Medicine under the direction of Cooley, who would become known for performing the first heart transplant in 1968.
“He was the most witty person,” said Sue Angel, his wife of 34 years and high school sweetheart. “He had a joke about any subject that came up. He had a brilliant mind. I have known a lot of smart people, but we was the most brilliant person I know. He was very entertaining, and people loved to be around him because he was very funny. He was also a very optimistic person, very upbeat. He saw the best in everybody.”
After completing his residency in 1967, Angel joined the Air Force and served as a combat surgeon. He was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone. He was in Vietnam during the Tet offensive, one of the war’s largest and deadliest military campaigns, named after the Vietnamese New Year.
At one point, Angel worked five straight days with little sleep and no time to change his clothes or boots because of constant shipments of wounded soldiers being flown in on planes, Sue Angel said.
While in Vietnam, Angel performed open-heart surgery on a small South Vietnamese girl, the first surgery of its kind in Southeast Asia, she said. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was touring the country, heard about the surgery and asked to meet Angel and the girl, said Angel’s son, Bob Angel, a Waco attorney.
Robert T. Angel, who rose to the rank of major, spent a year in Vietnam and moved his family to Waco in 1969. He and Crosthwait started Waco’s first heart surgery program at Providence Hospital and performed the first open-heart surgery in Waco in 1973.
For the first 12 years of the heart program, either Angel or Crosthwait would spend the night at the hospital following an open-heart procedure, showing their dedication to their patients and their willingness to be nearby after what was then trailblazing technology.
“He certainly taught me about hard work,” Bob Angel said of his father. “Once I asked if he wanted me to go to medical school and practice alongside him. He said he would love that but only if I could not imagine doing anything else. What he did was absolutely the cutting-edge thing at the time. They are big shoes to fill.”
Kent Keahey, president and chief executive officer at Providence Hospital from 1984 to 2013, said Angel and Crosthwait served as the hospital’s primary heart surgeons for many years.
“Dr. Angel was a wonderful individual,” he said. “I thought a lot of him. He had a good sense of humor and he was just a very kind individual. I valued my relationship with him.”
Angel also had privileges at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center after Hillcrest started performing heart surgeries.
Angel was forced to retire from surgery after he had a freak accident while pulling into his driveway on Westover Road in 2003. The brakes failed on his pickup truck as he was trying to turn into the garage. The truck struck a curb, which launched it into the bottom of a ravine behind his house.
The truck hit a tree at the bottom of the ravine and the impact left Angel with a broken neck. With his ever-present sense of humor still intact, Angel found his cellphone, called one of his stepsons and said, “If you are not busy, I am at the bottom of the ravine at the house,” Sue Angel recalls.
After a lengthy recovery, Angel retired but immediately found another callling, teaching pathophysiology, medical terminology and pharmacology at McLennan Community College.
In keeping with his lifetime of service to others, Angel donated his body to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. A mass to celebrate his life will be at noon Friday at St. Louis Catholic Church in Waco.