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Pioneering heart surgeon DeBakey
dead at 99
Baylor-based physician treated peasants, presidents and kings
HOUSTON - 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
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.
DeBakey 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.
Girotto said the surgeon "has improved the human condition and touched the lives of
A lifetime of innovation
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 only a 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
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.
In early 2006, DeBakey underwent surgery for a damaged aorta — a procedure he had
In a rare interview published later that year, DeBakey gave The New York Times details of the
"It is a miracle," DeBakey said. "I really should not be here." He said he at first gambled that his
aorta would heal on its own and refused to be admitted to a hospital, and was unresponsive and
near death when his doctors and his wife decided to proceed, despite his age. He then spent
As he recovered, DeBakey told his doctors he was glad they had operated, despite his earlier
"If they hadn't done it, I'd be dead," he said.
‘Maestro of cardiovascular surgery’
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."
But the accolades poured in Saturday as news of the death spread. Baylor College of Medicine
President Dr. Peter G. Traber recorded a taped webcast for the college community saying
DeBakey "created the foundations of modern surgical practice," and always looked for new ways
to treat patients ravaged by heart disease.
Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. George Noon called his longtime partner "the greatest surgeon of the
20th century" who "single-handedly raised the standard of medical care, teaching and research
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
A tireless worker and a stern taskmaster, DeBakey literally had scores of patients under his care
at any one time, helping to establish his name as a leading cardiovascular surgeon. He
performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his 70 year career, The Methodist Hospital
"Man was born to work hard," he said.
His patients ranged from penniless peasants from the Third World 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 don't get special treatment on the operating table: "Once you incise the
skin, you find that they are all very similar."
He made headlines again in 1996 when he flew to Moscow to help examine ailing Russian
President Boris Yeltsin and served as a consultant when he 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
DeBakey also trained hundreds of cardiovascular surgeons who now are practicing throughout
the world. Among them was famed heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley, who later became
DeBakey's chief rival in the Texas Medical Center.
"I like my work, very much. I like it so much that I don't want to do anything else," DeBakey
Helped establish Bayor's medical school
Baylor University College of Medicine was a fledgling medical school when DeBakey joined it in
1948, five years after it moved from Dallas to Houston.
The Waco-based university later cut its ties to the school, but DeBakey, as the medical school's
president and later chancellor, had helped to establish its own identity.
In 1953, DeBakey 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 a 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
Cooley was censured by the medical school and the National Heart Institute for using the
experimental device, and he and DeBakey traded accusations about their research. 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
In the late 1990s, he took an active role in creating the Michael E. DeBakey Heart Institute at
Always wanted to be a physician
DeBakey was born Sept. 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, 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."
Early in his career, DeBakey invented a new blood transfusion needle, a new suture scissors and
a new colostomy clamp. He began teaching at Tulane in 1937.
During World War II, DeBakey worked in Europe as director of the surgeon general's surgical
consultants division, helping develop mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH units) and specialized
treatment centers for returning veterans.
He returned to Tulane after the war and joined Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston
DeBakey's first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, died of a heart attack in 1972. Three years later,
DeBakey married a German film actress, Katrin Fehlhaber.
She survives, along with their daughter, Olga-Katarina, and two of his four sons from his first
marriage, Michael and Dennis. Two other sons, Ernest and Barry, are dead, a Baylor
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