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Michael E. DeBakey, Father of Modern Heart Surgery

“He was probably the greatest surgeon who ever lived” (The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005).

Michael DeBakey personally performed more than 60,000 surgical procedures. He developed the surgical procedures to bypass blocked arteries in the neck, legs and heart. These surgeries have been performed on millions of patients. He developed artificial pumps for people in heart failure. He was one of the first doctors to show that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.

Most significantly, he was the first to show that a person who had an aneurysm, a ballooning of the arteries in the belly or chest, could be cured by cutting out the aneurysm and replacing it with a Dacron graft. Aneurysms often burst to cause sudden death from shock. In 2006, more than 55 years after he developed the procedure, this incredible breakthrough was used to save DeBakey’s own life.

Probably The Hardest Working Doctor Ever
All his life, he worked harder than everyone else. He was at the hospital where I went to medical school, and he was always there before 6AM. As medical students, we would study in groups at night and when we left, often after midnight, we would see the light glowing in his office. He was busy writing one of his more than 1000 medical papers.

These incredible 20 hour-work days continued until his first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, died of a heart attack in 1972. Soon after that, Dr. DeBakey met a German film actress and painter, 33-year-old Katrin Fehlhaber, at a party in Los Angeles. She followed him to Texas to paint his portrait, where she captured his likeness on canvas and his heart for marriage.

At the wedding ceremony, the pastor asked Katrin if the 67-year-old bridegroom needed to sit down,. She replied: “Michael stands for hours for his operations; he’ll stand for this wedding.” After his second marriage, the lights in his medical school office were never on after 5PM.

Dr. DeBakey’s Aneurysm
On Dec. 31, 2005, at 97, Dr. DeBakey felt a sharp pain in his upper chest between his shoulders. Being the world’s leading authority on dissecting aortic aneurysm, he was able to diagnose that he had one.

He was admitted to the hospital and was in danger of the aneurysm bursting suddenly and killing him. However, because of his age, DeBakey didn’t want the surgery. After several weeks with medical treatment, but no surgery, the symptoms worsened indicating that the aneurysm was about to burst. The surgeons felt that Debakey was about to die and that only immediate surgery could save him.

The hospital’s ethics committee called a late-night emergency meeting and was about to unanimously vote against this difficult surgery on a 97-year-old. Dr. DeBakey’s wife, Katrin, walked into the meeting and demanded that the operation begin immediately. The ethics committee approved the operation. Then the anaesthesiologists at the hospital refused to administer anaesthesia on such an old patient, so an anaesthesiologist from another hospital agreed to put him to sleep.

Seven hours later, the surgery was finished and doctor DeBakey spent eight months as a patient in the hospital. His expenses for hospitalization exceeded one million dollars. He was discharged from the hospital, as the oldest survivor of his own operation, walking without support. He went back to working nearly full days, leading rounds on hospitalized patients, giving lectures and writing scientific papers. On July 11, 2008, at age 99, “the greatest surgeon who ever lived” died of heart failure at The Methodist Hospital in Houston.

October 6th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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