Remembering Dr. Michael DeBakey

July 13, 2008 6:24:00 AM PDT
Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered such now-common procedures as bypass surgery and invented a host of devices to help heart patients, has died. He was 99. DeBakey died Friday night at The Methodist Hospital in Houston from "natural causes," according to a statement issued early Saturday by Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital.

PHOTOS: See images from Dr. DeBakey's career

DeBakey counted world leaders among his patients and helped turn Baylor from a provincial school into one of the nation's great medical institutions.

On Tuesday, July 15, Dr. DeBakey will lie in state within the rotunda of the Houston City Hall, 901 Bagby Street in Downtown Houston, from 10am to 3pm, at which time the family will arrive and receive guests until 7pm. Funeral services are planned for Wednesday, July 16, however, the time and location are not yet confirmed.

"Dr. DeBakey's reputation brought many people into this institution, and he treated them all: heads of state, entertainers, businessmen and presidents, as well as people with no titles and no means," said Ron Girotto, president of The Methodist Hospital System.

Girotto said the surgeon "has improved the human condition and touched the lives of generations to come."

"There is no question that he was one of the pioneers of cardiovascular surgery in the last half of the 20th century," Dr. Denton Cooley, president and surgeon-in-chief at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and longtime DeBakey rival, said Saturday.

Cooley said one of DeBakey's greatest legacies is "that he influenced so many students to pursue careers in cardiovascular surgery."

While still in medical school in 1932, he invented the roller pump, which became the major component of the heart-lung machine, beginning the era of open-heart surgery. The machine takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery.

It was the start of a lifetime of innovation. The surgical procedures that DeBakey developed once were the wonders of the medical world. Today, they are commonplace procedures in most hospitals. He also was a pioneer in the effort to develop artificial hearts and heart pumps to assist patients waiting for transplants, and helped create more than 70 surgical instruments.

On Saturday, former colleagues and other medical professionals gathered at the still-uncompleted DeBakey Library on the Baylor College of Medicine to remember DeBakey as a "medical statesman" and perhaps the most prominent doctor in the world in the second half of the 20th century.

"He took risks that others might not take to advance medicine and to prove the value of the procedures," said Dr. Bobby R. Alford, chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine. "He had impeccable judgment."

"Millions of people are alive today because of the prior work of Dr. DeBakey for the past 60 years," said Dr. Marc Boom, executive vice president of The Methodist Hospital.

In early 2006, at the age of 97, DeBakey underwent surgery for a damaged aorta -- a procedure he had developed.

"It is a miracle. I really should not be here," DeBakey said in a rare interview published later that year in The New York Times.

Dr. William T. Butler, a colleague of DeBakey's at Baylor, said in March 2006 that DeBakey established himself with his surgical firsts as the "maestro of cardiovascular surgery."

"Dr. DeBakey was never afraid to challenge the status quo, often going against the tide," Butler said. "Some times his colleagues did not really accept his visionary ideas, particularly as he propelled beyond the boundaries of existing scientific dogma."

In a 1985 Associated Press interview, DeBakey said: "I'm accused of being a perfectionist and, in the way it's usually defined, I guess I am. In medicine, and certainly in surgery, you have to be as perfect as possible. There's no room for mistakes."

DeBakey was the first to perform replacement of arterial aneurysms and obstructive lesions in the mid-1950s. He later developed bypass pumps and connections to replace excised segments of diseased arteries.

A tireless worker and a stern taskmaster, DeBakey literally had scores of patients under his care at any one time. He performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his 70-year career, The Methodist Hospital said.

His patients ranged from penniless peasants to such famous figures as the Duke of Windsor, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan, Turkish President Turgut Ozal, Nicaraguan Leader Violetta Chamorro and presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

But he said celebrities didn't get special treatment on the operating table: "Once you incise the skin, you find that they are all very similar."

In 1996, he flew to Moscow to help examine ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin and served as a consultant when Yeltsin underwent surgery.

DeBakey served as chairman of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke during Johnson's administration and helped establish the National Library of Medicine. He was author of more than 1,000 medical reports, papers, chapters and books on surgery, medicine and related topics.

"I like my work, very much. I like it so much that I don't want to do anything else," DeBakey said.

In 1953, he performed the first Dacron graft to replace part of an occluded artery. In the 1960s, he began coronary arterial bypasses.

In 1962, DeBakey received a $2.5 million grant to work on an artificial heart that could be implanted without being linked to an exterior console. In 1966, he was the first to successfully use a partial artificial heart -- a left ventricular bypass pump.

It was the first implantation of a complete artificial heart by Cooley in 1969 that led to the famous feud between the two surgeons that lasted until the two publicly made amends in 2007. The patient, Haskell Karp, 47, lived on the artificial heart for nearly five days, then received a heart transplant, but died 36 hours later.

Cooley was censured by the medical school and the National Heart Institute for using the experimental device, and he and DeBakey traded accusations. Cooley, who contended Karp was so ill he had no choice but to operate, left Baylor and established the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.

Meanwhile, the effort to save lives through heart transplants was stalled. Dr. Christiaan Bernard in South Africa had performed the first human heart transplant in history in late 1967. In the United States, DeBakey and Cooley were among those who began performing the transplants, but death rates were high because the recipients' bodies rejected the new organs.

The advent of a new anti-rejection drug, cyclosporine, gave new impetus to organ transplants in the 1980s. In 1984, DeBakey performed his first heart transplant in 14 years.

His work as an inventor continued. In the late 1990s, DeBakey brought out a ventricular assist device touted as one-tenth the size of current heart pumps that helped ease suffering for patients waiting for heart transplants.

In the late 1990s, he took an active role in creating the Michael E. DeBakey Heart Institute at Hays Medical Center in Hays, Kan.

DeBakey was born Sept. 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, La., the son of Lebanese immigrants. He got interested in medicine while listening to physicians chat at his father's pharmacy.

"I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. I just didn't know what kind," DeBakey once said.

He received his bachelor's and medical degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans.

He recalled in 1999 that the time he finished medical school in 1932, "there was virtually nothing you could do for heart disease. If a patient came in with a heart attack, it was up to God."

DeBakey's first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, died of a heart attack in 1972. He is survived by his second wife, Katrin Fehlhaber, their daughter, and two of his four sons from his first marriage.

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