Andres E. Castellanos, 51, of Cherry Hill, a Venezuelan immigrant who delivered pizzas for Domino's as he trained to become a respected minimally invasive and robotic surgeon in Philadelphia, died Tuesday, Dec. 12.
Dr. Castellanos was poised to take over as chief medical officer at Hahnemann University Hospital. He died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania of complications from acute leukemia, said his medical colleague and friend, William C. Meyers.
"He was a great young surgeon who had helped a couple of institutions through some hard times," Meyers said.
In 1998, Tenet Healthcare Corp., a for-profit firm based in Dallas, bought Hahnemann and seven other hospitals from the bankrupt Allegheny Health System for $345 million, and Hahnemann became an affiliate of the Drexel University College of Medicine.
Dr. Castellanos was a Hahnemann attending physician at that time. He and several others helped steer the Hahnemann doctors through a revival as Drexel University Physicians, Meyers said.
"Drexel was like a family to them," said Dr. Castellanos' wife, Jill Theresa. "They were not willing to give up on something that could have been a sinking ship."
Among the most well-liked physicians at the hospital and medical school, Dr. Castellanos was being groomed to take over from long-time CMO George J. Amrom.
"Andres had the magic tongue," said Meyers, president of Philadelphia's Vincera Institute. "He kept up the spirits of the house staff as they went through the bankruptcy from 1999 to 2001. He helped write the document that saved the residents-in-training programs after Tenet suddenly closed the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 2003.
"He charmed, with his Spanglish humor, the site visitors swarming onto campus and aiming to close the embattled programs," recalled Steve Klasko, president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.
Both men had been senior associate deans at Drexel during the transition period.
Born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Dr. Castellanos graduated from Los Robles High School in 1983 and earned a bachelor of science degree, and then a degree in medicine and surgery, both from the University of Zulia Medical School, Maracaibo, in 1990.
After completing two internships in Maracaibo, Dr. Castellanos came to the United States in 1993 as a student. He became a pizza deliveryman for close to a year to earn money while studying for his medical aptitude tests.
When he went to give his notice to the Domino's Pizza managers, they told him, "No, you have a future here, we want you to stay," his wife said he told her. He replied, "No, guys, really, I'm a doctor."
From 1993 to 2001, Dr. Castellanos completed his surgical training at various local medical institutions, and then spent a post-graduate year with Meyers exploring the secrets of haptics – or the sense of tactile feedback that the surgeon experiences during robotic minimally invasive surgery.
Dr. Castellanos became expert in that technique, applying it to minimally invasive general surgery and to bariatric surgery for obese patients. Combining his surgical prowess with his social skills, he led the surgical training program at Drexel and Hahnemann for 13 years until the time of his death.
In September, Dr. Castellanos was called upon to lead yet another transition when Tenet Healthcare Corp. announced it had agreed to sell Hahnemann and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children to a private equity-backed California firm for $170 million. The buyer was Paladin Healthcare of El Segundo.
Hahnemann CMO Amrom remembered Dr. Castellanos as "absolutely dedicated to the residents and making sure they progressed as surgeons and in life. He was the ultimate surgeon and clinical educator. He chaired many committees. He was the most wonderful colleague."
David Stein, Drexel's surgical chairman, remembered Dr. Castellanos as "the doctors' best friend and simply full of integrity."
Dr. Castellanos's former Drexel colleagues Ari Brooks, now chief of surgical oncology at Pennsylvania Hospital, and Ray Talucci, a senior trauma surgeon at Atlanticare in southeastern New Jersey, described him as "the heart and soul of the Drexel surgery residency."
His wife said that despite a heavy work schedule, he enjoyed life to the fullest. "He never seemed tired, he never even drank coffee," she said.
He took up golf at age 40, played the guitar, learned ballroom dancing, skied, had a "killer" tennis serve, and made egg foo yung and paella. The only thing he disliked was opera, his wife said.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Alexander Eduardo Castellanos; two brothers; and a sister.
A visitation starting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19, will be held at Christ the King Catholic Church, 200 Windsor Ave., Haddonfield, followed by an 11 a.m. Funeral Mass. Interment is private.