VALLADOLID, Spain – Using ultrasound to detect congenital heart defects in children is the daily work of Uruguayan physician Roberto Canessa, best known as one of 16 rugby players who survived more than two months in the Andes after a 1972 plane crash.
Since that fateful day, Canessa, who was a second-year medical student at the time of the accident, has treated around 150,000 children.
Alongside with countryman Pablo Vierci, the pediatric cardiologist wrote an autobiography titled “Tenia que sobrevivir” (I Had to Survive), which explains how the crash in the Andes inspired a lifelong commitment to saving lives.
“The addiction to life infects the children,” Canessa said in an interview with EFE in this northwestern Spanish city.
Canessa is attending the Spanish Society of Pediatric Cardiology and Congenital Heart Disease’s national conference in Valladolid.
“We live so unaware of how vulnerable we are,” he said.
He compared the sensation of being buried by a snow after an avalanche with what his “babies” must feel when they are looking at him as a means of clinging to life, communicating only with their eyes.
Canessa currently works at the Hospital Italiano in Montevideo, where even today he still comes across some of his fellow survivors of the plane crash that inspired several books and two films, one Mexican and one from the United States – “Alive!”
“The book makes you appreciate life in a different way. Don’t wait until a plane crashes to realize just how good you had it,” the physician said.