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First major gift to UTRGV School of Medicine will establish scholarship program

HARLINGEN – William C. Head, M.D., a distinguished orthopedic surgeon from Dallas, has granted The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine its first major contribution – a $600,000 gift to establish the Jean Marie Rodriguez-Ayers Scholarship – to benefit UTRGV’s inaugural class of medical students.

Francisco Fernandez, M.D., founding dean of UTRGV’s School of Medicine, announced the gift today at the dedication of the new UTRGV Smart Hospital at the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen. The RAHC is a satellite campus of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

“This is an incredible gift and we are so honored,” Fernandez said. “We want to make a medical education available to any student who has the skills and commitment to do the work and we don’t want a student’s economic situation to stop them from pursuing their dream.”

Head was born in Arkansas and finished medical school at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. He completed his residency in orthopedics at UT Southwestern in Dallas – after a three-year hiatus as medical officer in the U.S. Navy – and also completed a fellowship in adult reconstructive surgery of the hip at Massachusetts General in Boston. Head served for two years on the Harvard University faculty at Boston’s Brigham Hospital. He returned to Texas in 1960 and went on to establish the Texas Center for Joint Replacement, in addition to serving as a part-time faculty member at UT Southwestern.

Head has long been involved in improving health care in the Rio Grande Valley. More than a decade ago, he and his wife established a scholarship program at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio for students who completed their third and fourth years of medical school at the RAHC in the Rio Grande Valley.  In 2004, a $1 million gift from the Heads established a Distinguished Chair in Development and Environmental Neonatology to study premature births and low-birth-weight rates in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Dr. Head has long been interested in improving health care for Texans – particularly focused on how lack of access to quality preventative healthcare can affect a population,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., who served as president of UT Health Science Center-San Antonio when Head established the scholarship program and distinguished chair at that institution. “His generosity has already improved the lives of countless people and this latest gift will open doors of opportunity for many aspiring physicians.”

Now that the RAHC will be transitioning to the UTRGV’s School of Medicine, Head decided it was time to once again provide support.

“The vision is to attract qualified students from South Texas and give them some financial assistance, maybe even make it possible for them to graduate from medical school debt-free,” Head said. “Hopefully, with that support, they will become doctors and stay in the region to give back to their community.”

The scholarship program is named for the sister of Head’s longtime assistant, Cynthia Ayers. Ayers’ sister died in December 2013 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 45. Ayers said her sister’s illness began in childhood when an undiagnosed case of strep throat led to chronic kidney disease. She underwent two kidney transplants in her lifetime before being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year and a half ago.

“I couldn’t help but wonder how basic education and access to affordable health care when we were children could have saved her life,” Ayers said. The personal story resonated with Head, who decided it was once again time to invest in the Rio Grande Valley and support the UT System’s vision for transforming education and health care in South Texas.

“I am extremely impressed with the enthusiasm of the entire community,” said Head, who visited the UTRGV Smart Hospital on Wednesday. The Smart Hospital is a state-of-the-art simulation teaching hospital that will be used by a variety of partners across the region. “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a great need and I don’t think there’s any doubt that this new institution will be incredibly successful with the amount of support and dedication I saw today.”

About The University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and a fall 2013 enrollment of more than 213,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $14.6 billion (FY 2014) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.