Thursday, April 19, 2018
News Roundup

Dr. Victor Martinez, a lifeline for the poor, dies at 78

TAMPA — When devouring textbooks and scribbling notes between seeing his heart patients, Dr. Victor Martinez might have come off like a hungry medical intern. There were some differences, however.

Dr. Martinez was already an accomplished heart surgeon. He had practiced for 35 years, taught at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and served on the state's Board of Medical Examiners.

His textbooks covered torts and contracts, not angioplasty and artificial heart valves. In his 50s, Dr. Martinez had decided to go to law school.

"He just wanted to talk shop at the table," said his daughter, Kathy Martinez, who like her brother, Victor D. Martinez, is a lawyer.

That family joke isn't far off the mark. Dr. Martinez had a restless mind. Since asthma had kept him inside while his friends played baseball, he had grown up reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. He used his law degree from the University of Miami to help implement the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan. Later, he served as the county's chief medical compliance officer for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Dr. Martinez, one of Tampa's most visible medical advocates for health care for the indigent, died Monday of congestive heart failure. He was 78.

"He helped a lot of people get into medicine and get a job when they got out, particularly Hispanics," said Doug Belden, a longtime friend and Hillsborough County's tax collector. "The man was known for taking care of the poor that needed help medically."

Dr. Martinez was a hard-core Democrat who could never be accused of materialism. "He wore whatever shirt was there, whatever pants. Hair all over the place," said Kathy Martinez, 54.

Victor J. Martinez was born in Tampa in 1934, the son of Spanish immigrants. He married Aline Guerra while at the University of Miami's medical school. From 1966 to 1968, he practiced at the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, N.Y., treating the wounded from the Vietnam war.

In 1968, after further training at Tampa General Hospital, he performed one of the first coronary bypass surgeries in the Tampa Bay area, his family said.

Dr. Martinez practiced regularly at Centro Asturiano Hospital in Ybor City and six others, performing more than a half-dozen operations in a day. At the end of marathon workdays, he gave a list to his wife, who kept the books.

"He would say, 'Don't bother charging these people, they don't have the money,' " his daughter said. "I can't tell you how many thousands were just written off."

He had a better memory for a good story, from setup to punch line. Some anecdotes matured with age, acquiring new and colorful details. "He took a little literary license over the years," his daughter said.

Patients recognized him everywhere he went, including door-to-door campaigning with Kathy Martinez, who won a Democratic primary before losing a state House race in 1997. Some proudly showed off their scars.

He challenged his peers, both professionally and in business. In 1975, as vice president of the state's Board of Medical Examiners, he estimated that as many as 300 of the state's 13,000 practicing physicians were incompetent and should have their licenses revoked.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Martinez led an effort to place a heart institute on family-owned property on Armenia Avenue. He envisioned a bilingual staff able to treat a growing Latin American patient base.

Tampa General, University and St. Joseph's hospitals did not share Dr. Martinez's enthusiasm for the project, and it died.

In recent years, Dr. Martinez hung on through the faint hopes and disappointments of congestive heart failure. "That saying, 'Ignorance is bliss'? He wasn't allowed that," his daughter said.

As Dr. Martinez lay dying in Memorial Hospital, a former patient recognized him. "She was the charge nurse that night," Kathy Martinez said. "He had operated on her in 1980, and now she was taking care of him."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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