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Recalling Debakey: Genius, Taskmaster

July 16, 2008

By Daniel Axelrod, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

Jul. 16–Michael Debakey, M.D., the father of modern cardiac surgery, drew packed crowds when he spoke at the University of Scranton in 1984 for Mercy Hospital’s inaugural surgery symposium.

But his former Baylor College of Medicine student Lear Von Koch, M.D., a Scranton private-practice doctor and Mercy’s chief of cardiac surgery, remembers how Dr. Debakey opened eyes at dinner after his speech.

“Debakey was sitting next to Mrs. (Ruth) Abrams, wife of Mercy’s chairman of the board (the late Arthur) Abrams, when he unscrewed the salt shaker at dinner and poured the entire thing onto his steak,” Dr. Koch said. “Mrs. Abrams turned to him and said, ‘Good God, man, what are you doing?’ And he turned to her and said, ‘Madam, it’s not about the salt, it’s genetics.’?”

The incident captured Dr. Debakey, who died of natural causes Friday at 99, as an independent-minded, temperamental man, Dr. Koch said. He was the ultimate taskmaster, with a perfectionist streak and a larger-than-life persona, he added.

Dr. Debakey performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his 70-year career, inventing a slew of cardiac devices and serving as doctor to celebrities and heads of state.

“Debakey was an absolute titan and a genius,” said Dr. Koch, who likes to imitate the Lake Charles, La., native’s Creole accent. “He was incredibly influential. He was unruly and demanding, but he could also be sugary sweet, very nice and very seductively diplomatic.”

That charm is what lured Dr. Koch down to Baylor’s Houston campus. Dr. Koch, now 62, was a Harvard University dental student when he met Dr. Debakey at a Boston medical conference in summer 1969.

Dr. Debakey and John Hines Kennedy, M.D., told the young medical student he should follow his heart and become a cardiac surgeon.

Between the conversation, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology class and a summer project studying hypertension, Dr. Koch finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. Of course, the reality of studying under Dr. Debakey was less glamorous.

“In order to lead, he basically instilled fear in everyone,” Dr. Koch said. “He could be mean, but he was a guy who could do amazing things.”

By the late 1970s, Dr. Koch had won over the “old professor.” Dr. Debakey pushed him into prestigious cardiac and thoracic residency programs. So Dr. Debakey was happy to accept Dr. Koch’s invitation and see his former student’s Scranton practice.

Not long after Dr. Debakey finished that steak at the first symposium dinner, police escorted his limo to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport.

The conversation turned to the then-76-year-old doctor’s desire to learn from the way he raised his four sons. He didn’t want to miss out on the childhood of his young daughter from a second marriage.

As the driver approached the airport entrance, the tarmac gates opened and the limo pulled up to a chartered jet. Dr. Debakey smiled just before it whisked him back to Houston. Suddenly, he didn’t seem so salty.

Contact the writer: daxelrod@timesshamrock.com

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