Feature

Michael DeBakey

The pioneering doctor who made heart surgery routine

The pioneering doctor who made heart surgery routine
Michael DeBakey
1908–2008

Michael DeBakey first saw a beating heart in 1933 when, as a young surgeon, he attended to a stabbing victim. “It was beautiful, a work of art,” he recalled. “It is something God makes and we have yet to duplicate.” Over the next seven decades, DeBakey devoted himself to keeping hearts beating, becoming the premier cardiovascular surgeon of his time. Besides performing the first successful coronary artery bypass, he developed devices and procedures that have become medical standards. DeBakey operated on some 60,000 patients, and his techniques have helped millions more.

DeBakey was a pioneer from an early age, said The New York Times. In medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans, he created an instrument called a roller pump “to transfuse blood directly from a donor into a patient.” This was the basis of the heart-lung machine, which “helped inaugurate the era of open-heart surgery.” In the 1950s, he began using durable, synthetic Dacron grafts to patch faulty arteries, allowing surgeons “to repair previously inoperable aneurysms of the aorta in the chest and abdomen.” Among DeBakey’s many other innovations were a device to move blood from one heart chamber to another and a partially artificial heart, which he developed in 1966.

“A perfectionist in everything, DeBakey was intolerant of the failings of others,” said the London Times. “Many students and colleagues felt the force of his volcanic temper.” For that he made no apologies. “If you were on the operating table,” he asked, “would you want a perfectionist or somebody who cared little for details?” But he was also “unfailingly kind to his patients,” who included Marlene Dietrich, Joe Louis, the Shah of Iran, the Duke of Windsor, Boris Yeltsin, and Jerry Lewis. DeBakey was also so renowned that “he was an advisor on health policy to every American president from Truman to George W. Bush.” In 2006, at the age of 97, DeBakey himself underwent surgery to repair a torn aorta, with doctors using the procedure he developed.

Among DeBakey’s many honors were the Legion of Merit, the Lasker Award, the National Medal of Science, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His colleagues revered him. On one Christmas morning, wandering through a deserted hospital, he irritably asked where the staff was. A junior physician replied, “Celebrating the birth of another great man.”

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