If you were a heart surgeon, would you operate on this patient?
• He is 97 years old
• He will certainly die in the next few days if you do not operate
• He invented the surgical procedure that he now needs, more than 40 years ago
• He did research that has saved millions of lives
• He has done more than 70,000 surgeries
• He is the most famous surgeon in the world
On December 31, 2005, at age 97, Dr. Michael DeBakey suffered an aortic dissection. That means that the inner lining of the artery leading from his heart had separated from its outer wall and he was about to die because it would bleed profusely or it would block the outflow of blood from his heart. He was already unconscious and close to death. The most famous heart surgical team in the world decided to operate, and the Houston Methodist Hospital Ethics Committee approved the operation. However, the Baylor anesthesiologists, who were the most experienced team in the world for putting patients to sleep for open-heart surgery, refused to put him to sleep because he was 97 years old, so the surgical team had to bring in anesthesiologists from another hospital.
DeBakey became the oldest patient ever to undergo this procedure. The surgery took seven hours and he spent the next eight months recovering in the hospital at a cost of more than a million dollars. In September 2006, he left the hospital and went back to working on scientific papers. Two years later, at age 99, he died from heart failure at the same hospital. The surgery had added two more productive years to his incredibly productive life.
Humble Beginnings to World Fame
He was born in Louisiana to Lebanese immigrant parents who spoke French at home. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a seamstress. He went to college at Tulane University in New Orleans, received his medical degree in 1932 and remained there on the Tulane faculty. From 1942 to 1946, he was in the United States Army where he created Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units and helped to establish the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center Research System.
After his Army service, DeBakey went to Baylor School of Medicine in Houston, Texas where he served as the chairman of the department of surgery from 1948 to 1993. He was president of Baylor Medical School from 1969 to 1979 and chancellor from 1979 to 1996. He made Baylor the most famous heart surgery center in the world for more than fifty years. He practiced medicine until the day he died.
Dr. DeBakey’s Medical Innovations
• While still in medical school, at age 23, he invented the roller pump that became the heart-lung machine.
• At age 31, he was the main mover of the drive to link smoking and lung cancer.
• He was one of the first surgeons to perform coronary artery bypass surgery,
• He was the first surgeon to remove clots from arteries.
• He was the first surgeon to use an external heart pump.
• He was the first surgeon to use Dacron grafts to replace and repair blood vessels.
• He was first surgeon to successfully use an artificial heart
• He was among the first surgeons to perform heart transplants and performed 12 of them.
• He developed the MicroMed DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device
Dr. DeBakey was supposed to be the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart. He became furious with, and estranged from, the world’s second most-famous heart surgeon, Denton Cooley, when Cooley took DeBakey’s artificial heart and implanted it in a patient when DeBakey was in Washington meeting the President of the United States. As a result, Cooley had to leave Baylor’s Methodist Hospital and move to St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital across the street. A year after DeBakey died, he was given The Denton A. Cooley Leadership Award.
My Experience with Dr. Debakey
From 1958 through 1961 I was a medical student at Baylor and saw first-hand his incredible drive for perfection. His surgical rounds every morning at 5:00 to 6:00 AM often had an entourage of more than 50 people composed of medical students, surgeons-in-training and some of the most famous surgeons from all over the world. As medical students, we would often study at the medical school through much of the night, and I saw the light at his office stay on as he wrote papers often beyond 3:00 in the morning. All that time, he was married to his first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey. She died of a heart attack in 1972.
When DeBakey was 67, Frank Sinatra introduced him to 32-year-old German actress Katrin Fehlhaber. He married her in 1975 and they had a daughter, Olga, in 1977. The medical students noticed that the light in DeBakey’s office never again stayed on after 5:00 PM. At the time of his death at age 99, she was 64 and they still had a very happy marriage.
Legacy and Honors
DeBakey performed more than 70,000 surgeries (New York Times. July 13, 2008), and operated on some of the most famous people in the world, including the Shah of Persia and the Duke of Windsor. At age 88, he directed Russian surgeons when they performed quintuple bypass surgery on Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He invented countless surgical tools that still bear his name. He received two Presidential Medals of Freedom, from presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon, the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan and the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2005) called him the most famous surgeon of all time.
Dr Michael Ellis DeBakey
September 7, 1908 – July 11, 2008