Monday, July 14, 2008

Obituaries - Michael DeBakey, MD, 1908-2007

Michael DeBakey. M.D. – trailblazing surgeon, innovator, educator, and medical statesman – died at age 99 at Methodist Hospital in Houston on Friday, July 9. He practiced surgery for 70 years and put down his scalpel at age 90.

I knew DeBakey only indirectly, having met in New Orleans with his two charming and loyal sisters, who aided him in writing and publishing his contributions to medicine. They were a close-knit family, and they survive him.

During his career, DeBakey performed 60,000 surgeries, trained hundreds of surgeons, operated on the high and mighty, including Boris Yeltsin, the Duke of Windsor, the Shah of Iran, and Marlene Dietrich, conducted a famous feud with his protégé, Dr. Denton Cooley, vaulted Baylor into a leading heart and vascular center, and left an unparallel string of innovations in his wake.

His innovations included.

• As a medical student at Tulane in the 1930s, he developed the roller pump, first used in transfusions and later at the central component of the heart lung machine.

• In 1939, he and Dr. Alton Oschner brought the medical world’s attention to smoking as a leading cause of o lung cancer.

• In 1952, he was the first to successfully repair an abdominal aneurysm.

• In 1958, he inserted a Dacron graft, and showed Dacron could substitute for damaged arteries.

• In 1966, he and his team perfected a left ventricular assist device to help patients with failing hearts.

• He worked constantly with an engineer at the site of his surgeries to create new sutures, new instruments, and new devices to improve surgical techniques.

• He modernized military surgery by pushing for MASH (Mobile Ambulatory Surgical Hospitals) so surgeons could operate near the front lines and later developed medical programs for returning veterans.
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• Helped rejuvenate the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda.

For these and other achievements, he received many national and international awards. I will not list these now. Suffice it to say, he was the world’s best known surgeon.

DeBakey was not a modest man, for he had little to be modest about. He was a harsh taskmaster, sometimes openly criticizing residents during surgery even summarily discharging them from the program for minor errors, but he was always kind and gentle to patients and medical students.

Stories about DeBakey number in the hundreds. I recall chatting with his hospital administrator 35 years ago, who said DeBakey brought more than 50 million dollars into Methodist Hospital, and gratefully commenting as an afterthought, “You know, he only kept $8 million for himself.” As a leader of surgical teams, he circulated between operating rooms, snacking between cases. He sometimes did an entire case, sometime played only
a minor role, depending his mood and the
circumstances. Once in the midst of half dozen or so surgeries, he poked his head out outside the door and said, “Anybody out there needs surgery. We’re just getting warmed up.”

He was no stranger to controversy. There was the widely publicized feud with Cooley, who he blamed for conducting an unauthorized surgery using a mechanical heart without notifying DeBakey. After 40 years, they reconciled and presented each other with awards. When the AMA opposed Medicare, DeBakey supported it and teamed with President Johnson to make it happen. On the scientific front, he
never accepted cholesterol as the dominant cause of atherosclerosis, a disease whose ravages he spent a life time correcting.

DeBakey was tireless. He awoke at 5AM, wrote for two hours, drove to the hospital in a sports car, and ended his rounding and operating day at 6PM, He attributed his longevity and productivity to good salads, constant intellectual challenges, and 4 to 5 hours sleep each night. His health and resilience amazed to the end of his life. At age 97 he suffered an aortic dissection, but recovered nicely after surgeons using the “DeBakey procedure” corrected the dissection. He was the oldest patient ever to undergo that procedure.

DeBakey was larger than life. If life were considered a word game, he was a verb – a man of constant action. He believed what one could conceive and believe in, one could achieve. Let us now praise this remarkable man.

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