Heart surgeon DeBakey receives high honor

April 30, 2008 8:19:00 PM PDT
Famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey can add Congressional Gold Medal to his long list of honors.President Bush presented DeBakey with the medal during a ceremony Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda.

The Houston surgeon pioneered such procedures as heart bypass and has invented medical devices to help heart patients. He's also recognized for developing the idea of battlefield mobile surgical hospitals known as MASH units.

Bush said the award puts DeBakey in the company of inventor Thomas Edison, Army physician Walter Reed, who confirmed that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever, and Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. The president noted that he was awarding DeBakey the honor four decades after another president from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson awarded DeBakey the Congressional Medal of Freedom.

"His legacy is the unlost hours with family and friends who are still with us because of his healing touch. His legacy is grandparents who lived to see their grandchildren," Bush said as the 99-year-old DeBakey sat in a wheelchair onstage. "His legacy is holding the fragile and sacred gift of human life in his hands and returning it unbroken."

Bush said DeBakey, a son of Lebanese immigrants, was the first foreign physician made an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences after arranging a quintuple bypass for former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

"President Yeltsin spoke for many of Dr. DeBakey's patients when he called him, 'a man with a gift of performing miracles,'" Bush said.

DeBakey was equally extolled at the ceremony by congressional leaders for his compassion.

"By literally fixing broken hearts, Dr. DeBakey has given hope and health to millions," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

The medal's design is tailored to the honoree. DeBakey's medal, struck by the U.S. Mint, features a replica of the surgeon in his scrubs. In the background, other scrubs-clad surgeons stand over an operating. The reverse side features human heart over a globe. A quote from DeBakey is inscribed on a ribbon wrapped around the heart. "The pursuit of excellence has been my objective in life," the quote says.

After receiving the award, DeBakey told the audience his parents encouraged him to go to the library once a week. "The most important thing our parents told us was the one thing we should have is a good education," DeBakey said.

He thanked Congress for its work in supporting medical research and shared his ideas for health reforms.

Bush signed the bill awarding DeBakey the medal last October. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, were sponsors with the rest of the Texas congressional delegation co-sponsoring.

Friends and colleagues attending the ceremony recited many of DeBakey's accomplishments. He invented the roller pump, a heart and lung medical device; developed the first abdominal aortic aneurysm operation and more.

Green of Houston said DeBakey had operated on more than 60,000 patients during his career and Hutchison said his work had an impact on medicine and the world.

Entertainer Wayne Newton was among those attending the ceremony. DeBakey was best man at Newton's wedding. "We've been friends for a lot of years. He took care of my mother and father and eventually me," Newton said.

DeBakey is originally from Lake Charles, La., but Bush didn't let it be forgotten that the famed heart surgeon has lived many years in his home state.

"Dr. DeBakey has given the citizens of the great state of Texas one more reason to be proud. It's a good thing, too, because we're usually such a quiet bunch," Bush said to laughter.

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