Heart of a Hero

September 1, 2008 by  
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Legendary heart surgeon Michael Ellis DeBakey, M. D. recounts his extraordinary life

I was privileged to interview Dr. DeBakey prior to his death, July 11, 2008, less than two months before his 100th birthday. My goal was to share his life reflections with H Texas readers in our September issue as a birthday gift. In the spirit of celebrating his 100th birthday, this article is written in present tense with Dr. DeBakey living and laughing as he was on May 7, 2008.

We meet in Dr. DeBakey’s private conference room. The walls are laden with framed photos of him with U. S. presidents, heads of state, national and local luminaries, doctors, family members, friends and patients. Dressed in a green pullover sweater and casual corduroy slacks, he still looks ruggedly handsome and has a twinkle in his eye as he enters in a motorized wheelchair. His vibrant warmth quickly fills the big room.

The father of modern cardiovascular surgery and arguably the most famous heart surgeon in the world, Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey, chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine and director of the DeBakey Heart Center of Baylor and Methodist Hospital, is responsible for much of the Texas Medical Center’s world-renowned reputation. His talent, expertise, compassion and dedication to helping others led him to develop and perfect more than 50 medical devices, techniques and procedures, saving millions of lives.

Theodore Roosevelt was president and Henry Ford had just developed the Model T when DeBakey was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Some of his earliest memories involve the library. His parents insisted their children check out a book each week.

“I could read when I was four,” he recalls, “but I was around seven when I found the best book I’d ever seen in the library. When I asked to take it home, the librarian refused. This fascinating book, my very favorite, turned out to be in a series —The Encyclopedia Britannica. It wasn’t long before my father bought the set for myself and my brothers and sisters. By reading these books, I really broadened my education. I learned a little geography, where all the countries were and the character of the country. I learned a little bit about the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Of course, I didn’t understand everything in the encyclopedias, but I loved them and read each one. I was a good student, in the top of my class. I was probably the best-read freshman on the Tulane Campus.”

He credits his mother for his giving spirit. Every Sunday she gathered her children to deliver clothing she mended and meals she cooked to an orphanage. “One Sunday I objected when she packed a cap I liked,” he reminisces. “She said, ‘You have a new cap. These children don’t have parents to give them a cap. You can afford to give this one to them.’ In that moment I learned a lesson, and it never left me! Throughout my lifetime, I’ve been very grateful to be able to do things for others.”

His mother was a sewing expert, and he watched and learned as she taught neighborhood girls to sew. “At five years old, I could cut out a pattern,” he says. In the 1950s, about 40 years after cutting his first pattern, he sewed the prototype for artificial arteries on his wife’s sewing machine using fabric purchased at Foley’s in Downtown Houston. In 1952, he became the first surgeon in the country to perform successful excision and graft replacement of aneurysms of the aorta and obstructive lesions of the major arteries. He remembers it as one of the most exciting times in his life. “Up until then, there was no thought of ever doing it. It was a great stimulus to go on.”

His interest in medicine developed early in life. “My father was a pharmacist, and doctors would come by to get their prescriptions filled,” he explains. “I thought they were great people, and they truly inspired me to become a doctor.”

At 23, already in medical school and engaged in medical research, DeBakey invented the roller pump, which provides continuous flow of blood during operations and helped launch the open-heart surgery era. “That was pretty exciting,” he says. “I simplified the process with the roller pump, which became an integral component of the heart/lung machine.”

He was already a successful surgeon and professor when he opted to volunteer for service in World War II. He became a member of the Surgical Consultants’ Division in the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army from 1942 to 1946; in 1945 he became its director and received the U. S. Army Legion of Merit. He is credited with helping develop mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units and later helped establish the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center Research System.

After re-entering civilian practice, Dr. DeBakey’s medical achievements began piling up. He was the pioneer behind countless medical procedures now used worldwide to save lives. Coronary bypass surgery, angioplasty, Dacron grafts and artificial heart transplants are just a few of his medical accomplishments.

Dr. DeBakey has operated on more than 60,000 patients, including President Lyndon Johnson, President John F. Kennedy, President Richard Nixon, The Duke of Windsor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Shah of Iran, King Leopold of Belgium, King Hussein of Jordan, Aristotle Onassis, Stavros Nicandros, Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Wayne Newton, Sam Giancana and others. Each and every one of Dr. DeBakey’s patients, regardless of their stature, received the same excellent care.

“During those years I was up before four in the morning, at the hospital by 5, operating most of the day, usually 10 or 12 surgeries; between cases, interviewing people, visiting patients and writing,” he says. “Nothing has ever been more important than the health of my patients.”

A lifelong scholar with interests ranging well beyond medicine, Dr. DeBakey has thorough knowledge of history, philosophy, ethics, literature, art and music. Many have added “Renaissance Man” to his titles. His love of writing led him to author or co-author more than 1,700 published medical articles, chapters and books on various aspects of medicine, including ethical, socioeconomic and philosophic discussions. Many of these articles are considered classics. His books have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list: “The Living Heart,” “The New Living Heart Diet,” “The Living Heart Shopper’s Guide” and “The Living Heart Guide to Eating Out.”

“There were many times I would operate all week and write all weekend,” he says. “I love to write; it’s been a kind of hobby—putting words together, expressing thoughts so that they represent a pleasant hearing of the words.”

After so many accomplishments, I can’t help but ask him for The Dr. Michael E. DeBakey Formula for a Long Life. The great man laughs and answers, “So much of the process of aging—from the day we’re born until the day we die—is unknown. A lot of what’s written is just verbiage; it doesn’t mean a thing. Certainly, there are a few things, such as smoking, that one should avoid; at least omit those things that are harmful. Common sense. Moderation. Eat anything in moderation.”

I heard from his friends that he loves Louisiana creole food covered in Tabasco sauce, so I ask him if he watches his diet.

“No!” he says instantly. “I like home cooking … rice, potatoes, meat once a week, shell fish and fish. Very moderately. I’ve weighed 165 pounds all of my adult life.”

Describing his schedule on the day of this interview, he says, “I still get up early, exercise at a physical fitness facility for an hour or so; come to the office every day, supervise surgeries, tend to correspondence and see people. No pressure. I go home mid-afternoon. I spend much of my free time in my library at home, which includes four or five thousand books. I’ve read many books on the various religions of the world, and I know a little bit about many of them. My favorite reading material is old classical poems from English writers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.”

According to Baylor College of Medicine, one of Dr. DeBakey’s greatest accomplishments is training successive generations of surgeons. He established many fellowship and residence programs; many of the program graduates have gone on to chair and direct academic surgical programs in this country and abroad. He was the driving force behind the High School for the Health Professions of the Houston Independent School District, which attracts young people to the health profession early and prepares them with a strong academic foundation. When I mention there must be thousands of young people who want to talk to him about becoming doctors, his eyes light.

“I enjoy having them ask me! My answer is always the same: discipline. It takes a great deal of discipline to study. You have to make choices: do I go out to the theatre tonight or do I study?”

On New Year’s Eve, 2006, 97-year-old DeBakey felt an incredible pain in his upper chest. He was in denial about the severity of his illness and waited a month before entering the hospital. As specialists conferred and argued the legalities of operating on someone his age, Dr. DeBakey’s wife, Katrin, burst into the room and said, “He’s dying, and you’re talking. If he is to have a chance to live, you have to operate!” The surgery, performed by Dr. DeBakey’s physician and longtime partner, Dr. George Noon, made DeBakey the oldest person to survive a major surgery. Incredibly, he was saved by his own invention of 50 years before.

Discussing his concept of what life will be like after death, he said, “I don’t think about death or the afterlife very often. I did for years, but I think if you are a Christian, you have to believe. It doesn’t require documentation. Therefore, I’m a Christian. I’m relieved that I don’t have to think about it or prove it. It’s really very simple: either you believe or you don’t. I learned to believe early in life. There is something about the Christian religion that’s very comforting.”

As he nears his 100th birthday, I ask him to reflect on his life. “In general, it was a productive and pleasant life. To be sure, I may be considered a workaholic, but I enjoyed it. The work was part of the joy of life. And there is nothing I enjoyed more than taking care of patients. If you look at the Congressional Gold Medal, which I just received, it bears the inscription of my words that I’ve lived by: ‘THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE HAS BEEN MY OBJECTIVE IN LIFE.’ And everything I’ve done or tried to do has been at the level of excellence.”

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