By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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A Tribute to

Dr. Michael DeBakey

The Father of Modern Open-Heart Surgery


Your Health Connection Magazine
February 2009


CONSIDERED A HEALER OF THE HUMAN HEART, THE LATE DR. MICHAEL DEBAKEY LEAVES BEHIND A LEGACY AS A LIFESAVER FOR HIS PIONEERING EFFORTS IN THE TREATMENT OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASES. HIS WORK EARNED HIM A REPUTATION AS A WORLD-RENOWNED HEART SURGEON AND PROLIFIC HUMANITARIAN WHO HAS OPERATED ON TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PATIENTS AND SAVED COUNTLESS LIVES.

Born in September of 1908 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, DeBakey passed away at age 99 — just months from his 100th birthday.

Now, he is remembered for benefiting humanity through a lifetime of work based on his personal philosophy: “Being compassionate, being concerned for your fellow man, doing everything you can to help people — that's the kind of religion I have.”

Coined the father of modern open-heart surgery as well as the maestro of cardiovascular surgery, DeBakey's values are said to be based on his upbringing by parents Shaker Morris and Reheeja Zorba DeBakey, who emigrated from Lebanon to America as children. Self-educated and tireless workers, they created successful endeavors with a drugstore and investments in construction, rice farming and real estate. They also paid visits to orphanages with their son every Sunday, and encouraged their boy to serve the less fortunate no matter what — one time to the extent that he gave the baseball cap he was wearing to another boy who had no caps of his own.

With that, DeBakey's desire to help others was born. He earned his bachelor's degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, and in 1932, received his MD from Tulane University School of Medicine. At age 23, while still attending medical school at Tulane University, he invented the roller pump, which later became a vital part of the heart-lung machine for providing a continuous flow of blood during operations — ultimately making open-heart surgery possible.

From 1942 to 1946, he was on military leave as a member of the Surgical Consultants' Division in the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army. While serving in the Army in World War II, he helped revolutionize wartime medicine through his support of stationing of doctors closer to the front lines, which improved the survival rate of wounded soldiers and resulted in the development of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital — MASH — units during the Korean War. These efforts earned him a Legion of Merit award in 1945.

In 1948, he joined the faculty of Baylor University College of Medicine — now known as the Baylor College of Medicine — serving as Chairman of the Department of Surgery until 1993, as President from 1969 to 1979 and as Chancellor from 1979 to 1996, when he became Chancellor Emeritus. He was also Olga Keith Wiess and Distinguished Service Professor in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, and Director of the DeBakey Heart Center for research and public education at Baylor and Methodist Hospital.

Research, too, was a big part of this life as he was constantly immersed in topics related to all aspect of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery. As a result, he is known for devising many new operations, devices and more than 50 surgical instruments for improvement of patient care.

Praised for such trailblazing efforts, he received the prestigious Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award in 1963 for developing a fundamental concept of therapy in arterial disease, and in 1952, was the first in this country to perform successful excision and graft replacement of aneurysms of the aorta and obstructive lesions of the major arteries. In 1953, he performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy, thereby establishing the field of surgery for strokes.

His lifelong scholarship is reflected in more than 1,600 medical articles, chapters and books on various aspects of surgery, medicine, health, medical research and medical education, as well as ethical, socioeconomic and philosophic discussions in these fields — many of which are now considered classics. He has also written and edited many books, including Technique and Therapeutics of Transfusions; Battle Casualties: Incidence, Mortality, and Logistic Considerations and Vascular Surgery in World War II.

Considered selflessly devoted to humanity, he has received numerous awards from educational institutions, professional and civic organizations and governments worldwide. In 1969, for instance, he received the highest honor a United States citizen can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science.

Through the years, he operated on heads of state, peasants from the Third World, princes, celebrities and paupers — with the same exacting surgical technique and compassion to each individual patient.

“I'm accused of being a perfectionist and, in the way it's usually defined, I guess I am,” DeBakey told the Associated Press in 1985. “In medicine, and certainly in surgery, you have to be as perfect as possible. There's no room for mistakes.”

His own health issues first became serious in December of 2005, when he suffered an aortic dissection, which occurs when the inner layer of the aorta’s artery wall splits open. Ironically, years prior, he had pioneered the surgical treatment of this condition, creating what is now known as the Debakey Procedure. Though he initially resisted this option, his deteriorating health forced a surgical team to operate, making him the oldest patient to ever undergo the signature surgery he developed. After undergoing seven hours of surgery — followed by a post-operative course that called for an eight-month stay in the hospital — he was released in September of 2006 and returned to good health.

“It's a miracle,” DeBakey told the New York Times in a rare interview published in December of 2006 at age 97. “I really should not be here. ... If they hadn't done it, I'd be dead.”

On July 11 of 2008, he died of natural causes at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. In addition to his wife, Katrin, and their daughter, Olga, DeBakey is survived by sons Michael and Denis, as well as sisters Lois and Selma DeBakey, who are both medical editors and linguists at Baylor. His memorial service was held at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and he was later granted ground burial in Arlington National Cemetery by the Secretary of the Army.

Prior to his death, DeBakey reinforced that his accomplishments in life were largely inspired by his parents and traditional Christian upbringing.

“There have been a number of people whose feats of courage or nobility of purpose have inspired great admiration, but my first and lasting heroes were my father and mother,” according to DeBakey's statements on MyHero.com, a nonprofit educational website that celebrates the best of humanity.

“The traditional values of honesty, integrity, compassion and service are still relevant. I believe all of us should strive to make some contribution, however small or grand, to society and should observe The Golden Rule in living our lives. If that rule were universally observed, we would have attained that precious goal — peace.”
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