Pioneering Heart Doctor Michael DeBakey Dead at 99
By John Porretto
HOUSTON — When Dr. Michael E. DeBakey pushed forward with his groundbreaking research and maverick approach to medicine a half century ago, heart surgery was a medical marvel.
Today, in part because of his contributions, it routinely saves thousands of lives each day.
DeBakey, a world-famous cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered such now-common procedures as bypass surgery and invented a host of devices to help heart patients, died Friday night in Houston. He was 99.
According to a statement issued early Saturday by Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital, DeBakey died of “natural causes” shortly after arriving at the hospital. The hospital’s heart and vascular center bears his name.
DeBakey, whose career spanned more than 70 years, counted world leaders among his patients and helped turn Baylor from a provincial school into one of the nation’s great medical institutions.
“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.
A tireless worker and stern taskmaster, DeBakey performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his career and had scores of patients under his care at any one time.
Among his patients were presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan, Turkish President Turgut Ozal and Nicaraguan leader Violetta Chamorro.
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.”
At an April ceremony in Washington in which DeBakey was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor, President Bush said the award placed the surgeon in the company of inventor Thomas Edison, Army doctor Walter Reed and Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine.
“His legacy is holding the fragile and sacred gift of human life in his hands and returning it unbroken,” Bush said at the time.
Born to Lebanese immigrants on Sept. 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, La., DeBakey his interest in medicine began 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 when 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.”
In 1932, while in school, DeBakey 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. DeBakey would go on to help pioneer the effort to develop artificial hearts and heart pumps to assist patients waiting for transplants, and help create more than 70 surgical instruments.
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.
In early 2006, at age 97, DeBakey underwent surgery for a damaged aorta — a procedure he developed.
“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 a longtime DeBakey rival, said Saturday.
Cooley said one of DeBakey’s greatest legacies is “he influenced so many students to pursue careers in cardiovascular surgery.”
DeBakey’s former colleagues were among those who gathered Saturday at the still-uncompleted DeBakey Library at the Baylor College of Medicine to remember him.
“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.”
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 the author of more than 1,000 medical reports, papers, chapters and books on surgery, medicine and related topics.
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. Four years later, he was the first to successfully use a partial artificial heart — a left ventricular bypass pump.
Dr. Christiaan Barnard in South Africa performed the first human heart transplant in history in late 1967. In the United States, DeBakey was among the first to begin 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.
In the late 1990s, DeBakey took an active role in creating the Michael E. DeBakey Heart Institute at Hays Medical Center in Hays, Kan.
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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