by Anne Bruno
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Dr. Charles Fraser Jr.
Heart Surgeon, Professor
According to Dr. Charles Fraser, Jr. “Austin is exactly the kind of city that should be leading health care innovation, not following.” As chief of the pediatric and congenital cardiothoracic surgery program at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and professor in the departments of surgery and perioperative care and pediatrics at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, he now has the opportunity to help make that happen.
In May, Fraser relocated to Austin after 23 years at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. There, he led the renowned pediatric hospital’s congenital heart surgery program. He is now the leader of the recently established Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease, a joint program of Dell Children’s and UT Health Austin, Dell Med’s clinical practice.
“In many ways,” he says, “it’s hard to believe that Austin has not had a medical school until recently. There’s no place quite like this in the country — the exploding population, the vibrant economy. Austin is the capital of one of the fastest-growing states and home to the state’s premier public university. This is exactly where big things are supposed to happen.”
Fraser, who was born in Austin while his father was attending graduate school here, followed in the footsteps of numerous family members (including two of his grandparents) and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas. He attended medical school at UT Medical Branch at Galveston.
He compares what’s happening in Austin today with the establishment in the late 1800s of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, one of the finest academic medical institutions in the world.
“The situation in Baltimore at the time Johns Hopkins Medicine got started was very similar to Austin,” Fraser notes. “There was a convergence of forces — a leading philanthropist in a leading community had a mandate for [improving] health care at a time when it needed a big change. Today, you’d have to be living under a rock not to see the myriad of problems we have in health care. If a place like this can’t take that on, who can?”
While Fraser’s bold thinking and long-term vision have led to numerous technical advancements in the treatment of congenital heart disease (the most common birth defect and typically a condition patients deal with for the rest of their lives), he is also known as a compassionate caregiver. His interest goes beyond the operating table to the entire continuum of care so that the patients he is treating as well as their families are cared for in a supportive, nurturing way.
“I think it’s unacceptable for a community to have to compromise on health care. In Houston, I saw patients come from all over, and it’s incredibly hard on the family — emotionally, financially, every way you can think of. It just makes what they’re already dealing with worse.”
Fraser says he also believes there’s a real disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to teaching hospitals. “I’ve always had interns, residents, fellows and medical students wherever I’ve worked as important members of the care team. And regardless of whether it was Johns Hopkins, the Cleveland Clinic, Texas Children’s or here at Dell Children’s, almost every family — in some way — will bring up a concern about being at a teaching hospital,” he says. “Basically, they only want the very best for their child and they’re unsure whether the teaching part gets in the way. I get that.”
The reality, he explains, is that academic hospitals are where the most difficult questions are being asked and the greatest focus is applied to finding the answers. “At a teaching hospital, we have the most eyes looking at every problem,” he says. “That’s what we do, that’s our job as leaders.”
“When I’m sitting with a woman who’s pregnant and we know there’s a problem — nearly all of them ask the same things,” Fraser says. “‘Is my child going to be able to play soccer?’ ‘Will she lead a normal life?’ I tell them as much as I know, but it really bothers me that I can’t answer all their questions. Every great hospital I’ve been fortunate to be a part of is doing incredible work, but here’s the thing: They haven’t solved all the problems yet. There’s still so much that we need to figure out.”
Reflecting on his move to Austin and new role with the University of Texas, Fraser says it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to impact the future for children and adults with congenital heart disease and to give something back to a place that’s been so important in his own life. “That part really does mean a lot to me.”