Carlos Vallbona, physician, medical educator, community health leader, and polio research pioneer, was born to Josep and Dolors (Calbo) Vallbona, on July 29, 1927, in Granollers, Barcelona, Spain. He grew up during the Spanish Civil War, and when he was ten years old, he witnessed a revolutionary security patrol, who traveled in what were referred to as “ghost cars,” apprehend his dad and take him away. The experiences he had during the war compelled him to lead a life of service to others. Vallbona pursued his passion for helping others by attending the University of Barcelona where he earned his B.S. and B.A degrees in 1944 and his M.D. degree in 1950. While in medical school, he served intermittently as an officer in the Spanish Army and then briefly as lieutenant after graduating. Vallbona completed his residency training in pediatrics at the University of Paris (1952–53) and then came to the United States to train at the University of Louisville School of Medicine (1953–55) in Kentucky. On December 26, 1956, Vallbona married Rima Gretchen (Rothe) Vallbona. The couple had four children together before divorcing in 1991.
Vallbona started his career at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, in 1955 as a third-year pediatric resident working under the direction of Dr. William Spencer at the Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center, where he cared for polio patients during the polio epidemic. The center, one of the nation’s first polio treatment clinics, performed groundbreaking research on polio and patient treatments in the 1950s. With the discovery of the polio vaccine in 1961, the center shifted its research focus from polio treatments to the rehabilitation of polio survivors. The center evolved into the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), now TIRR Memorial Hermann, in 1959. Vallbona emerged as a leading expert on post-polio syndrome (PPS) as a result of pioneering research exploring the neurological issues many polio survivors experience decades after initial treatment and rehabilitation. His trailblazing research for PPS, most notably the implementation of magneto-therapy to reduce pain, garnered widespread attention following publication in the 1997 November issue of the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Vallbona headed the outpatient post-polio clinic at TIRR until his retirement in 2013. In 2014 the Texas Polio Survivors’ Association donated $80,000 to TIRR Memorial Hermann and honored Carlos Vallbona and Nita Weil, polio survivor and co-founder of the association, with the establishment of the Vallbona/Weil Fund to give financial assistance to polio patients and funding support for continuing education and training for staff.
Valbona served on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) for more than five decades. He joined the faculty in 1956 and was appointed professor of rehabilitation in 1967, professor of family medicine in 1981, and honored as a distinguished service professor in 1990. Vallbona was appointed chairman of BCM’s department of community medicine in 1969. Under his leadership and vision, the department of community medicine formed an alliance with the Harris County Hospital District (HCHD), now Harris Health System (HHS), to establish the Community Health Program, an initiative created to provide primary and preventative healthcare to medically underserved communities. This partnership led to the opening of neighborhood health centers throughout Harris County. Beginning in 1973 Vallbona collaborated with HCHD community health centers to instruct new physicians in providing healthcare outside of hospital settings. He retired as chair of the BCM department of community medicine upon its merger with the department of family medicine in 1995.
Vallbona received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to academic medicine and to community health. He was elected outstanding faculty on five different occasions by Baylor students. In 1981 he was awarded the Cross of Officer of the Order of Civilian Merit by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. He was bestowed the Distinguished Faculty Award by Baylor in 1994 and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Education in 2004. In 2010 Vallbona received the first International Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Texas Medical Center International Affairs Advisory Council. In 2013 the Harris Health System honored him with the naming of the Vallbona Health Center.
Throughout his career he served as a consultant to various national and international agencies, including the National Center for Health Services Research, the World Health Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization. He chaired the Medical Care Section of the American Public Health Association and served on the boards of the American Red Cross, March of Dimes, American Institute of Catalan Studies, and others. He was a member of the Texas Medical Association’s Committee on Aging and Nursing Homes from 1970 to 1988 and served as president of the Association of Spanish Professionals in America from 1988 to 1990. In addition to his many other memberships and accomplishments, Vallbona helped found the Institute of Hispanic Culture and chaired Houston’s chapter of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. He served on the advisory boards of a number of medical journals.
Carlos Vallbona continued caring for patients at the post-polio clinic at TIRR until 2013, when he retired after suffering a stroke. He passed away due to complications from pneumonia on August 5, 2015, in Houston.