Professor Gábor Rácz is a Hungarian-born American anaesthesiologist, a Professor at Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas. He is also Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Anaesthesiology and Co-Director of Pain Services. He has been working in the field of chronic back pain and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, designed the Racz Catheter and developed what became known as the Racz procedure for epidural lyses of adhesions. Since 1993 the encyclopaedia titled “Best Doctors in America” has been listing him every year as one of the eight best pain therapists in the United States.
“It was seven of us. My sister Margit, her husband Karcsi, their nine-year-old son Szabolcs, my 17-year-old sweetheart Enid, myself and two other men whom I had not met before. It was just before six in the morning. As soon as the concierge opened the front door of the building, we took off from my sister’s apartment.
“A grey, windy and cold November day it was in Budapest. We did not know exactly where we were going except that we wanted to end up in Austria. I did not even know why we were going. I only knew that I had to go. I also knew that if I went I would take Enid with me if she was willing to come.
“It was Tuesday, November 27, 1956. The previous day I did not have any intentions of leaving Hungary. When I got home from the university the previous evening my mother told me that two men from the Hungarian Secret Police, the infamous AVO, were waiting for me all afternoon. They wanted to take me in for questioning about my ‘involvement’ in the Uprising.
“As they spent the whole afternoon at our place they were getting hungry. So they left and missed me only by a few minutes. But it was certain that they would come back for me. That would have meant the end of my dreams to become a doctor. Perhaps I would have ended up in prison. Not that I had done anything but many other people ended up in prison following 1956 without committing any crime.
“That is why I had to escape. As we were walking across Liberty Bridge from the Pest side of the town over the River Danube to Buda, the bells of one of the churches on the embankments began to chime, calling the people for early Mass. My sister said, ‘The bells are chiming for us. We will never be able to return’.”
Rácz and his group walked, took trains, got rides in lorries, walked and crawled to reach the Austrian border. As they were getting closer the group grew. By the time it was 30 of them the guide who was going to help them across the border divided them into two 15-member groups and left them, as he thought that moving even with 15 people was too dangerous.
Soviet tanks and soldiers were tightly patrolling the area. Professor Rácz learnt only 50 years later that the other group was captured by the Russians. Nobody knows about their fate. Finally it became certain that his group had reached Austria. It took them 48 hours. By that point they were frozen, starving and exhausted from the physical and emotional stress and fright.
Like a reverie, two days later buses were parked on the main square of the Austrian town of Eisenstadt. The buses were waiting for the many thousands of Hungarian refugees to take them to their new homes – countries almost anywhere in the world. What a dreamlike opportunity!
Coming from a completely closed-off society where for decades one could not travel even within the vicinity of the Austrian border, now, finally, they were in Austria. In those minutes, their future lives would be decided by which bus they would choose. But not all countries took families. Some wanted only men, some wanted only women. England was prepared to take even youngsters under 15. So the Gábor Rácz group chose England. By December 2, he and his family members were in a former military base in the Midlands. They did not speak English but they had the desire to become useful members of the country that took them and enjoy the freedom it offered.
Almost to the day, 59 years later we are sitting with the world-famous professor in his Budapest flat. Looking at pictures, he is recalling the events of his life. As we are in the sitting room, a constant flow of family members is coming and going. He has organised a family reunion. Forty family members, some from the States, some from Hungary, have gathered for a few days to meet and get acquainted. The grandchildren don’t speak Hungarian but happily listen to their grandparents’ stories recalling the Hungary they fled in 1956. And they are enjoying the Hungary they see around themselves now in 2015.
But why did the police want to take you in for questioning?
That I still don’t know. I was a second-year medical student. I did not know much about saving lives as a doctor yet. But when I saw the hundreds of injured people during the Uprising I went to one of the hospitals and asked how could I help? I was given a paper to commandeer a truck and get a load of sugar for the Medical School Clinics. This signed directive was enough and to my surprise I managed to get and deliver the sugar to the School. My other “involvement” in the revolution was a few hundred metres from our home. I was at a busy road-crossing. There were sounds of random shootings in the area. I put my head out of a corner pillar to see if it was safe to cross the road. From one of the buildings on the other side somebody opened fire at me. He missed my head by a few inches. After that I felt God must have chosen me for some purpose; that is why He saved me. And if that is true He would show the way in my life; I don’t need to worry. After the shooting incident when I could not understand why anybody would want to kill a young, unarmed man I knew that I have to escape.
From a refugee student how did you become a world expert in pain therapy?
In 1957 as a former Hungarian medical student I received a scholarship at the medical school in Liverpool, England. I was allowed to carry on my studies from second-year. I had a place at the university but needed accommodation. Without knowing me, Dr. Ian McWhinney and his wife took me in as a lodger. They wanted to help me to become a doctor. I had to get a job because although I did not have to pay them rent, there were the food and utilities I used. This generosity gave me a lifelong example: one must study and pass on knowledge and help the next generation. At the college the condition of my entry was that I would have to retake all my first-year exams three months later, in English. At that point I did not speak any English. From that day on I learnt 50-70 English words every day. On 5th of April I passed my exams and I was accepted. Five years later I graduated as one of the best students of my year. After graduation I studied the possibilities. My aim was to find a field that I could reach the highest. I had nothing, nobody behind me. But I had my wife [Enid] and my son to support. I could not fail. I had to work hard. To be the best, only that was good enough for me.
What gave you the strength, not to stop when you received your degree and your first job in England, to move to the States and carry on research to this day?
I came from a financially very meagre background. This was partly because my parents did not want to join the Communist Party, so they had no privileges. Even their right to use their talents was restricted. My father, a designer, was demoted to be a maintenance electrician. As a young man I had two shirts, the one on me and the one drying for the next day. Our parents were sincere people and they brought us up to be hard-working, honest individuals. When my older brother was two years old, he died of diphtheria. My parents were devastated. My mother was not a superstitious woman but for the first and last time in her life she went to a fortune-teller. The seer told her: “Don’t worry; you are going to have a son who will become a world-famous doctor.” This sounded completely insane as my mother was already in her late thirties and she did not think that she would still be able to have a child. From the moment we children were born, my mother told us that education is the only way for us to succeed in life. So I excelled in school. Freedom was very important for me. And I found freedom through excelling. Being the best is where I felt freest. I would have done anything for my mother’s approval and to make her happy.
What brings you back almost every year to the country you had to escape from?
I received so much, I feel I have to give, help if I can. I saw how few Hungarian doctors could attend international conferences abroad because the participation fees at such events are so high. So I thought I would organise conferences in Hungary and bring the best doctors and researchers here. Give a chance to the Hungarians to learn.
What are the most important values in your life?
All the awards and titles do not match the feeling of becoming and being a good doctor. One of the biggest strengths in life is the love within the family. I brought my family here so that we could be together and be happy together at Christmas. I love helping people. And I used to play water-polo. Now that I look at the path I followed since the would-be assassin missed me I can see that God guided me on my way. Thank you, Lord.
Professor Rácz was the first recipient of the Grover E. Murray Professorship in 1996, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s highest award. In 1998 the University Medical Center named him as chair of a USD 1 million endowment in recognition of his work at TTUHSC and the University Medical Center. In 2004 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. The New York/New Jersey Societies of Interventional Pain Physicians granted him a lifetime achievement award in 2012.
Professor Rácz started work in Liverpool. A year later, in 1963, he was offered a position in the United States at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. He worked in several positions at SUNY. In 1977 he joined the then-new Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC ) as chairman of anaesthesiology, and held that position until 1999. He was acting director of pain services and oversaw the expansion of operations and future development of an international pain centre. He also served as Director of Pain Services at TTUHSC from 1977 to 2006. He is the founder of the World Institute of Pain. In 2007 as president he organised the first World Congress in Budapest in which nearly 2000 physicians took part. The Messer-Racz International Pain Center at TTUHSC was named after him and the Messer family. Professor Rácz has worked to treat complex regional pain syndromes, a long-term disorder of the nervous system that is a challenging pain problem frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed. As he often says, there would not have been a need for surgery if his catheter had been used and the tumour already treated.
In 1982 he designed the Racz Catheter, a flexible, spring-wound catheter with a small fluoroscopic probe. In 1989 he described a procedure he developed to treat patients with chronic low back pain caused by scar tissue due to previous surgeries, protruding or herniated discs, fractures or degeneration that has not responded to other treatments. This is known as the Racz Procedure. His latest discovery in cervical, lumbar lysis / neuroplasty and densely scarred spinal canal treatment is that a very small catheter works better than a larger stiffer one. Also that hypertonic saline inhibits scar formation for years longer. This is supporting the German human fibroblast cell culture findings with exposure to hypertonic saline and steroids.