TAMPA — Dr. Robert Casañas, lover of old movies, bought the 1974 Werner Herzog film The Enigma of Kasper Hauser on DVD to watch with his 9-year-old daughter, Cassandra.
On Father’s Day, they snuggled up on their reclined sofa, watching a young German man recently released from inexplicable confinement as he learns, for the first time, how to live in 19th Century society.
It was midway through the movie on Sunday when Cassandra realized her dad wasn’t breathing. She ran downstairs and told her mom, who was preparing Father’s Day brunch. When the paramedics arrived, he was pronounced dead.
Dr. Casañas, an internist who taught medicine at the University of South Florida and across the world, was 71.
His wife, Dr. Beata Casañas, said he died from a cardiac arrest, which also took the lives of her husband’s father and brother.
“She’s in shock and denial,” the 48-year-old mother said of their daughter. “She knows that daddy’s gone, but it hasn’t registered. She gets distracted and plays, and then she remembers and cries.”
Cassandra has been asking her mom how she will learn Spanish now — her father was a Cuban American who made it a priority to pass on his native language to his daughter. Beata Casañas, who is Polish American, said she knows that she cannot fill that role for her husband.
Dr. Robert Casañas was an adjunct professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, as well as a longtime internist and pain specialist who owned a private practice in Westchase.
Over the course of his long career, Casañas published two textbooks on using Chinese medicine to treat disease. He taught students abroad, particularly in India, Kazakhstan and the Dominican Republic, and was a regular speaker at international conferences.
He practiced for years in California, where he directed and owned three medical practices and also served as the main investigative health consultant for the state of California in Sacramento.
Before he became a professor at USF, he was a student there, finishing his Master of Science degree there.
Dr. John Sinnott, chairman of internal medicine at USF, said he met Casañas while they worked together in a research lab that specialized in infectious diseases at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
“I feel totally devastated,” Sinnott said. “Here is a great doctor with a great mind, which he was always eager to share. He was very generous and very much a patient advocate.”
Sinnott also recalled his friend’s sense of humor, as well as his friend’s habit of stealing and microwaving his sandwiches for lunch. Sinnott would be left with no choice but to buy food at the cafeteria.
He recalled playing a prank on Dr. Casañas for stealing his sandwiches. One day, he cleaned and dissected a dead mouse he found by a drain pipe and put it in the sandwich that his wife packed.
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When lunchtime came around, Sinnott watched Dr. Casañas take his sandwich and microwave it.
“I said, ‘I wonder what my wife made today,‘” Sinnott said.
But as soon as Dr. Casañas unwrapped the warm sandwich, he knew the smell was not right.
“He never stole my sandwiches after that,” Sinnott said.
One of his longtime friends, Juan Mendez, said Dr. Casañas cured his daughter of gastrointestinal issues. He remembered how sick she was — throwing up, dealing with intense abdominal pain — while she was a sophomore in college.
“We went to the best doctors in Philadelphia, New York and Panama and they couldn’t cure her,” Mendez said. “Then we went to Bob in Tampa.”
Casañas wasn’t just a physician to Mendez, but a friend of nearly 55 years.
“He has a great heart and immense intellect,” he said. “He has a passion for literature and philosophy.”
His wife is also an internist and infectious disease doctor at USF. Dr. Beata Casañas said that throughout their 19 years of marriage, her husband was always “a hopeless romantic.”
At their wedding in Poland, her husband surprised her with a Spanish serenade. As the years passed, he never stopped writing her love poems and letters.
Even though the death was abrupt and difficult to process, his wife said that she could not have imagined a more “peaceful, beautiful death.”
“The last thing he saw was his daughter, the absolute most important light in his life,” she said. “What more can I ask for?”
Born: April 12, 1949
Died: June 21, 2020
Survivors: wife Dr. Beata Casaña and two daughters: Cassandra, 9, and Camila, 30, who lives in Los Angeles.
Services: No arrangements are scheduled at this time due to the coronavirus.