Helping hearts

(First published in the January 23, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Since retiring as a heart surgeon at Aspirus, Fritz Riveron has been volunteering to help build surgery programs in places like Kenya


Fernando Riveron was five years old when his family — father, mother, and two siblings — emigrated from Havana, Cuba in 1962 to escape Fidel Castro’s regime. His father, a successful family doctor in Cuba, now found himself looking for work. Fortunately he had a friend in Chicago who worked for a hospital there and could get a job for the elder Riveron.

But as a foreign doctor, it takes about three years to become recertified in order to practice in the U.S. Riveron’s father ended up doing exams for other doctors while he went through the process. They lived in “modest surroundings,” Riveron says, until his father could work as a doctor in the U.S.

The contrast was stark, Riveron says. His family went from living well in warm and brightly colored Havana, to the drab snowy winters of the Windy City, where they lived in poverty. From this time in their lives, something his father said has always stuck with him. “My dad was a very pragmatic guy,” Riveron says. “He would always say, ‘They can take away everything from you, but they can’t take away what is in your head. Educate yourself to the maximum.’”

Today, Fernando “Fritz” Riveron, 63, is sharing what’s in his head around the world.

He followed in his father’s medical footsteps and became a heart surgeon, eventually heading up the heart surgery program at Wausau Aspirus Hospital. Riveron retired in 2018, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels. Riveron now spends much of his time traveling to Africa, helping to set up heart surgery programs. Heart disease is a major issue in many African countries, Riveron explains, and many places lack heart surgery programs.

Education is the missing element, he explains, but it’s definitely not a lack of skill. He has encountered some of the most skillful surgeons he’s ever seen in African hospitals. What many medical programs there lack is the know-how to do heart surgery, Riveron says.

Riveron was well-known in central Wisconsin as a heart surgeon, but his name has popped up in public recently for a few other reasons. He’s one of three developers who took on the beleaguered Riverlife project, a series of commercial and residential developments near downtown Wausau along the Wisconsin River. After two developers either came up short or passed on the project, Riveron along with Wausau developers Bob Ohde and Mitch Viegut took on the project. Riveron said he thinks Riverlife is a game changer for Wausau and wanted to see it thrive. Riveron and Viegut had partnered on other projects such as the Northernaire Resort in Three Lakes. But this one held a particular interest to him.

Riveron’s name also popped up in the news because he briefly considered a run at the 7th Congressional Seat as a Republican when Sean Duffy last summer announced he was stepping down from the position. Riveron ultimately chose not to run, instead choosing to use his medical skills to help those in other countries. But while mulling a run for public office, some of his statements might have seemed unusual for a Republican candidate — calling for compassionate immigration reform and fixing a medical system that has become more about being a business than a humanitarian effort. But Riveron is wary of socialism, having escaped the horrors of a socialist government in Cuba himself.

It’s clear Riveron is most passionate about his work in Africa. It’s an example of the kind of impact someone can make, even in retirement.

A medical career

Riveron had two early experiences with medicine that influenced him. In his first year at the Chicago Medical School, Riveron and two other students observed a live birth at Cook County Hospital. It was an intense experience to witness all the blood and liquids and umbilical cord, and how the baby comes out grey. Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead as he and the other students watched and turned pale, he recalls. They looked at each other “like ‘what are we getting into?’” Riveron says.

The second experience came on a trip home during Christmas from his first year of medical school, joining his father on his rounds. They ran into a group of heart surgeons who were going to perform an aortic valve surgery and invited him to watch. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen,” Riveron says. Looking down from the observation area, “it’s like an orchestrated dance. I said, ‘OK, I gotta do this, this is the coolest.’”

Riveron and his wife both graduated from medical school and finished their residencies in Ann Arbor, Mich. After residency, Riveron ended up at a cardiac surgery program in Boulder, Colo. Colorado was and still is one of the healthiest states in the country, and the cardiac program wasn’t very busy. So back to the Midwest the two came. He interviewed in Chicago when an old colleague invited him to apply in Wausau. Wausau had a ski hill, one of the things that attracted Riveron to Colorado, as well as the Wausau Conservatory of Music. The schools were good. Wausau was a perfect fit.

Riveron specialized in valve surgery, which helped grow the cardiology program at Aspirus. Riveron’s two partners at the time were both seniors, and within two years they both retired. At age 40, Riveron found himself in charge of the heart surgery program at Aspirus

“That doesn’t sound young, but to be the head of the program at that age, it was an opportunity,” Riveron says. Aspirus was pretty open minded about giving him professional leeway, and he took the program in a more data-driven and patient focused direction. “We made our quality measures the best in the state,” Riveron says. All the heart surgeons currently employed at Aspirus Wausau Hospital were recruited by Riveron.

One thing Riveron doesn’t mention, but others do? He’s warm and personable, says Kim Kuphal, who has worked at Aspirus for 19 years, and the last three as a physician’s assistant, describes Riveron as warm and personable. Kuphal worked directly with Riveron and says he wasn’t like other surgeons who often were stiff and formal and kept themselves separate from the nurses and other hospital staff. “He was always on a first name basis,” Kuphal says. “He always introduces himself as Fritz. He’s always been that way.”

The retirement job


Dr. Riveron with a surgical team at a hospital in Kenya, where he is volunteering to help develop heart surgery programs.

Developer Mitch Viegut met Riveron years ago when they were neighbors on Wausau’s east side and their now-grown daughters were friends. Riveron and Viegut started doing real estate deals together in about 2000, Viegut says.

Viegut says it was a two-way relationship — Viegut provided some business mentorship, and Riveron provides some “common sense practicality.”

Viegut found out along with everyone else about the various developers falling apart for the Riverlife deal — and both Riveron and Viegut told City Pages they wanted to see something good happen with it so they jumped in with Bob Ohde in making a pitch when the Riverlife project became open to developers. The three were initially passed over in favor of Gorman and Company, but were pegged for the project after Gorman dropped out to focus instead of a potential renovation of the Landmark Building. The first commercial project is currently under construction and the trio have plans for a second building.

Riveron retired in 2018, but a retirement spent reading books and doing real estate deals wasn’t enough — the pull to help people was too strong. Riveron still fills in at hospitals around the country and now has used those skills to help internationally. 

In 2017 a group of cardiac programs and surgeons met for a conference and the end result was the Cape Town Declaration on Access to Cardiac Surgery in the Developing World. The declaration was pointing to a debilitating condition that was going almost unaddressed in many parts of the world: rheumatic heart disease. It affects people under 35, and is particularly prevalent in African countries. In the U.S., there is a cardiology department for every 120,000 people; in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s more like one for every 3.5 million.

While most Americans consider heart disease something to start worrying about in their 50s and 60s, rheumatic heart disease is killing people in African in their 30s. It’s a complication resulting from strep throat, something curable with penicillin costing a few cents. But with limited access to medicine, some with strep can develop rheumatic fever, and some of those with rheumatic fever can develop rheumatic heart disease. Without surgery, Africans between 15 and 35 years old are dying.

Riveron joined the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons. The program is dedicated to developing heart surgery centers in Africa, training African surgeons to perform valve surgery to help prevent people from dying of rheumatic heart disease. Riveron is one of roughly a dozen surgeons who bring teams to Kenya to train African doctors.

“They’re already great surgeons, they just don’t know cardiology,” Riveron says. “So we teach them that. One lady I worked with will be famous one day. She’s one of the most remarkable surgeons I’ve seen.”

Supplies can be hard to come by, and prepping for surgery can often mean scrounging for all the right tools one needs from multiple surgery rooms, and sometimes improvising based on what tools are available, Riveron says.

But the surgeons there are top notch, and dedicated to helping fellow Africans. Riveron points out that a skilled surgeon there could move to the U.S. and earn far more than they will in Africa. But most stay to help their communities. “It kind of renews your faith in humanity,” Riveron says.

Viegut says Riveron’s work is inspiring to him. “What he’s doing over there is beyond what I think any human can comprehend,” Viegut says. “Fritz is the most amazing man I’ve ever met in my life when it comes to philanthropy and sharing his skills. It makes you want to be a better person and give back.”

Kuphal says the same, and she experienced that first hand when she joined one of Riveron’s teams to Kenya, his second, in November. Kuphal helped harvest veins for valve surgery and teach the African doctors to do so, and assisted in the ICU. Kuphal says she hopes to join future trips to Africa with Riveron.

Kuphal says it’s not surprising to her that Riveron would be spending his retirement this way. “It’s the kind of person that he is,” Kuphal says. “He really wants to help in a greater way.”