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Pioneering Texas Heart Surgeon Michael DeBakey Dead at 99

July 14, 2008

By The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 13–Michael DeBakey, the father of modern cardiovascular surgery who invented scores of medical procedures and instruments, developed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and established what later became the Veterans Administration hospital system, died Friday. He was 99.

Dr. DeBakey died at The Methodist Hospital in Houston of natural causes, according to a statement issued early Saturday by the hospital and Baylor.

“His legacy is holding the fragile and sacred gift of human life in his hands and returning it unbroken,” President Bush said in April, while awarding Dr. DeBakey the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The Journal of the American Medical Association said in 2005: “Many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever.”

He was a pioneering physician in the 1930s, before antibiotics, and remained a pioneer into the 21st century, assisting work on an artificial heart. He performed more than 60,000 operations in his career and campaigned relentlessly from the surgical suite to the White House for improvements in the field of medicine.

“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.

On Saturday, former colleagues and other medical professionals gathered at the uncompleted DeBakey Library on the Baylor medical campus 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 Alford, chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. DeBakey started his climb early. As a 23-year-old medical student at Tulane University in 1932, the Louisiana native invented a pump that became the key component of the heart-lung machine, essential for open-heart surgery.

A gruff perfectionist, he was legendary for his skill and endurance as a surgeon. His ability to maintain his focus and intensity for hours caused medical students to joke that he was “either a mutant or the product of an alien visitation,” Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier, a heart surgeon who trained under Dr. DeBakey, said with a chuckle.

Born in 1908 in Lake Charles, La., to Lebanese Christian immigrant parents, Dr. DeBakey was the oldest of five children. His father, Shaker, was a prosperous businessman with real estate, a pharmacy and a rice farm.

Dr. DeBakey’s mother, Raheejah, taught compassion and generosity, taking the family on regular Sunday visits to donate food and clothing to the needy.

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,” Dr. DeBakey once said.

He became the prize protege of famous doctor Alton Ochsner at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. In 1937, Dr. DeBakey joined the faculty at his alma mater.

Five years later, he volunteered for military service during World War II, serving in the surgeon general’s office.

In 1948, a fledgling Baylor College of Medicine, which had moved from Dallas to Houston five years earlier, asked Dr. DeBakey to become chairman of the department of surgery.

It wasn’t much of a school at the time, but within 25 years, Baylor would be surrounded by the sprawling, world-famous Texas Medical Center.

In 1968, Dr. DeBakey became president of Baylor medical school and announced, “I don’t want to be around mediocrity.”

The next year, he engineered the separation of the facility from Baylor University in Waco, although he kept the name.

In 1975, under Dr. DeBakey’s leadership, Baylor became home to the first National Heart and Blood Vessel Research and Demonstration Center, a fiercely fought-for honor that brought with it significant federal funding. Four years later, Dr. DeBakey gave up the presidency to become chancellor of the college. In 1993, he relinquished his chairmanship in surgery but remained active in his medical practice.

Dr. DeBakey obtained a federal grant for development of a total artificial heart. The work led to his break with Dr. Denton Cooley.

Dr. Cooley, scion of a prominent Houston family, already had made a name for himself at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when Dr. DeBakey hired him at Baylor in 1951.

Dr. Cooley says they got along well in the early years. But after a few years, their growing patient loads competed and Dr. Cooley started operating at neighboring St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. In 1962, Dr. Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s.

The complete break came in 1969. Working with a researcher who also was working for Dr. DeBakey, Dr. Cooley implanted the first totally artificial heart in a patient, who died several days later.

Dr. DeBakey called it “stealing” and was hurt because close associates were involved.

In 1968, following the lead of Dr. Christiaan Barnard in South Africa, Dr. Cooley became the first American surgeon to perform a “successful” human heart transplantation. Within a few months, Dr. DeBakey joined the experimentation with the new procedure.

But surgeons soon abandoned the procedure because the recipient’s immune system rejected the new organ. The operation became popular, however, after anti-rejection drugs were found.

Gave money away

Dr. DeBakey made money in medicine, but he gave a lot of it to Baylor, friends say, living fairly modestly.

Dr. DeBakey’s first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, died of a heart attack in 1972.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, German actress Katrin Fehlhaber, and their daughter, Olga-Katarina DeBakey; and two sons from his first marriage, Michael DeBakey Jr. and Denis DeBakey.

The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.

FAMOUS PATIENTS, GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS:

During his career, Dr. Michael DeBakey cared for, among others:

–Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon

–Russian President Boris Yeltsin

–Shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis

–Comedian Jerry Lewis

–Actress Marlene Dietrich

–The Duke of Windsor

–The Shah of Iran

ACCOMPLISHMENTS:

Dr. DeBakey recorded a long list of medical firsts:

–During the 1950s, he developed Dacron grafts for repair and replacement of diseased arteries. He sewed the first one on his wife’s sewing machine.

–He pioneered surgical repair of blocked carotid arteries (the neck arteries that supply the brain) and of obstructed aortas (the main blood vessel of the body).

–He was among the first to perform a coronary bypass, now common for the blood vessels serving the heart.

–Dr. DeBakey became the first surgeon to use a partial mechanical heart, implanting a device called a left ventricular bypass pump in a patient.

–He 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 World War II, Dr. DeBakey said that he and others created early versions of what became the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, in the Korean War. The Army awarded him the Legion of Merit.

–The Veterans Affairs hospital in Houston is named for him.

–He published more than 1,600 articles and several books, including The Living Heart (1977) and the best-selling The Living Heart Diet (1984).

–He won the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Research in 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the National Medal of Science in 1987.

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