Michael Ellis DeBakey, M.D., will always be remembered as a friend of the heart.
Through six decades of research, teaching, governmental activism and his own skillful touch, the famed Houston surgeon has taken on the nation's most indiscriminate killer: heart disease.
Unlike physicians whose main focus in medicine is treating sickness, DeBakey embraced the care of Americans' hearts in sickness and in health.
His book, The Living Heart, was a layman's guide to the wonders of the human heart. It became a bestseller in 1977 and was followed by The Living Heart Diet in 1984. That book was revised just last year with the most recent dietary recommendations for preventing heart disease.
Yet DeBakey emerged as a medical legend through his achievements in healing diseased hearts. In 1964, he performed the first successful coronary bypass surgery, a procedure that has become a routine operation for millions of Americans.
In truth, DeBakey, now 87, had a hand in training every vascular surgeon in the country because all of them absorbed techniques he developed.
Outside the theater of TV's "Marcus Welby, M.D.," or the staff of today's "ER," few physicians are so ingrained in Americans' consciousness. And few are likely to achieve that recognition in the future. Today's environment of managed care dictates that enrollees select local physicians from a list of restricted names, giving few physicians the chance to merit national stature.
In the golden years of fee-for-service medicine, nearly anyone with enough resources could fly to Houston to be operated on by "The Professor." And they did. DeBakey operated on patients from 80 countries. His gifted touch has mended more than 60,000 human hearts, ranging from international statesmen to the indigent, for whom he donated his services.
In the lobby of Methodist Hospital in Houston stands a 300-pound bronze bust of DeBakey presented by King Leopold and Princess Lilian of Belgium in 1978. The inscription reads: "Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., Surgeon, Educator, Medical Statesman. In recognition of one who served so many."
Said Larry Mathis, president and chief executive officer of Methodist Hospital in Houston: "He's trained nearly everyone who's anyone in cardiovascular surgery. I've traveled with him around the world, and he's treated with the attention of a movie star but with so much more deference and respect."
DeBakey's office at the DeBakey Heart Center at Methodist Hospital is lined with photos, plaques and awards bestowed on him through the years. A perfectionist known for working 17 to 18 hours a day, DeBakey has received more than 40 honorary degrees and dozens of prestigious medical awards.
Family values. Born Sept. 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, La., DeBakey was the oldest of four children. He credits his parents, Shaker Morris and Raheeja DeBakey, with instilling in him life's most important values: honesty, self-discipline and compassion.
A story told by DeBakey shows early signs that he had the potential to become one of the nation's pre-eminent surgeons. As a young boy, he accompanied his Lebanon-born father on a hunting trip. His father had walked a short distance to collect some ducks he shot, and when he returned he noticed that his son's hands were bloody. "What's wrong with your hands?" his father asked. DeBakey replied that he had taken a knife out of the pouch and opened the ducks. "Why did you do that?" his father asked.
"I wanted to find out how they fly," the boy answered.
In his second year of medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans, DeBakey met Alton Ochsner, M.D., the legendary surgeon who went on to found the nationally known Ochsner Hospital and Medical Foundation in New Orleans.
For DeBakey, Ochsner became a lifelong mentor. His admiration was so great DeBakey later gave two of his four sons the middle names of Alton and Ochsner.
In turn, DeBakey taught two of Ochsner's sons when he was chairman of surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
One of the sons, John Ochsner, wrote about DeBakey's reputation at Methodist and Baylor: "It was not uncommon to have 30 observers in the operating room, standing in tiered levels, behind the maestro as he performed these new innovative procedures. Likewise, rounds on patients following surgery were like a tribe being led by a chieftain, and it was amusing to watch the visitors try to keep up with Dr. DeBakey as he ran up and down stairwells."
In medical school, DeBakey worked in Ochsner's laboratory as a technician. In 1932, he developed the roller pump, an instrument that became the pumping system for open-heart surgery used around the world.
He completed his internship at Charity Hospital in New Orleans (now called Medical Center of New Orleans).
Following service as a surgical consultant to the U.S. Army Surgeon General during World War II, he returned to Tulane as an assistant professor of surgery. In 1948, he was selected chairman of the newly formed Department of Surgery at Baylor.
When DeBakey arrived, Houston was far from the medical meccas of the East Coast. But as DeBakey's reputation soared, so did Houston's as a medical destination.
At the time, Baylor didn't have an affiliated hospital, so DeBakey suggested the county's Jefferson Davis Hospital serve as Baylor's teaching hospital. It was there that DeBakey performed the first abdominal aortic aneurysm replacement in the United States and the first heart valve replacement in Houston.
History in the making. In 1952, DeBakey made history when he developed the first Dacron artificial grafts that would serve as replacements for diseased arteries. The first graft was made on his wife Diana's sewing machine, using skills his mother taught him as a youngster.
DeBakey then sought out Professor Thomas Edman of Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. They developed a machine that would produce seamless Dacron tubes that could serve as replacements for human arteries.
In 1953, he performed the first successful endarterectomy, a procedure in which the lesion is peeled away from an artery wall. The treatment proved to stifle a major cause of strokes.
By the mid-1960s, Houston was home to the world's largest cardiovascular center in terms of heart surgeries performed.
In an 18-month period beginning in 1968, DeBakey performed 12 heart transplants. Because of organ rejection problems, the effort was discontinued in 1970, then restarted in 1984 with the advent of cyclosporine, a powerful anti-rejection drug.
Apart from his clinical successes, DeBakey also took a firm hand in medical school administration. He initiated the separation of the medical school from the university in 1969 and subsequently was named president of the newly formed Baylor College of Medicine. In 1979, he was named chancellor.
While at Baylor, he founded the Cardiovascular Research and Training Center, which became the DeBakey Heart Center in 1985. The center, a joint venture between Baylor and Methodist Hospital, is dedicated to the research, treatment and prevention of heart disease. DeBakey is now chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine.
He played a role in nearly every aspect of healthcare. He has been an adviser to almost every president and was influential in some of the most important milestones of health policy. He was instrumental in establishing the National Library of Medicine, mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH) and the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital system.
In Houston, he established the High School for Health Professions, which is in the Texas Medical Center and trains hundreds of students each year in the health sciences.
Taking a stance. DeBakey has not shied from controversy.
The American Medical Association gave DeBakey its Distinguished Service Award in 1959, then found itself in major disagreement with its hero just five years later. A Democrat, DeBakey publicly championed President Lyndon Johnson's decision to launch a new federal program called Medicare.
He received letters from physicians throughout the country threatening to stop sending patients to him because of his policy stance.
DeBakey staunchly supported a federal financing program. He stated in Time magazine's May 28, 1965, cover story that: "The federal government has already put a lot of money into medicine, and every physician in the United States is better off for it-better off than he ever was before."
In recent years, DeBakey has endured the intrusions of managed care into the practice of medicine, but not timidly. In a Medical Economics profile published in 1994, DeBakey described how "some clerk" from an insurance company called to urge him to discharge a 90-year-old stroke victim. Instead of complying, DeBakey snapped back: "You come here and tell the patient's relatives you want her transferred to your care. Otherwise, butt out."
In a letter to the New York Times last year, DeBakey wrote that "Corporate America is appropriating healthcare in this country with the sole purpose of making a profit, by brutally squeezing doctors and hospitals financially and by restricting, and even denying, high-tech care to patients."
In recent years, he's worked with researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on an implantable heart-assist pump and a microwave catheter. The pump is similar to those used in the space shuttle to pump liquid oxygen and hydrogen that powers the rocket engines.
In 1993, DeBakey relinquished his position as chairman of Baylor's department of surgery. However, he still assists in the operating room.
"Dr. DeBakey is one of healthcare's greatest assets," Methodist's Mathis said.