There will never be another one like Michael DeBakey. The pioneering heart surgeon, who died July 11 at age 99, made contributions to medicine and public health in this country and around the world that few have rivaled. His list of achievements, awards and honors is too long to detail in this space, but I would like to mention some of them.
A giant leaves the stage
Michael DeBakey’s legacy unrivaled in medicine
The Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in 2005 that many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever. He pioneered bypass surgeries for blocked arteries in the neck, legs and heart, surgeries that have been replicated on millions of patients around the world. He performed surgeries into his 80s and thereafter supervised surgeries by his staff.
I first met him when I had the distinct honor of inducting him into the Health Care Hall of Fame in 1996. We talked a great deal at the dinner table that night because he somehow knew that I was a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, and his daughter was interested in going there. He asked me all sorts of questions about the school, faculty and culture.
He was 87 at that time and the thing that I will always remember was his penetratingly clear eyes as well as his grace and intellect. There was no mistaking the fact that he was special, and I will always remember that night. A few years later, I would receive an award named in his honor from the American Institute of Architects. I will treasure that award forever because of my great respect and admiration for DeBakeys pioneering efforts and the millions of lives he has saved.
Many of DeBakeys innovations and observations were ridiculed by criticsat first. A New York Times obituary tells the story of DeBakey and Alton Ochsner making the first link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in 1939. Apparently at that time many prominent doctors thought the concept was totally wrong. Twenty-five years later a report from the U.S. surgeon general documented that link.
DeBakey performed the first coronary artery bypass surgery and the first carotid endarterectomy to prevent strokes. He developed the pump that is the key component of heart-lung machines that are used routinely on patients during heart surgery. He also developed an artificial heart that keeps patients alive while they wait for their own heart to improve.
In World War II he helped modernize battlefield surgery by urging that doctors be moved from hospitals to the front lines where, to that point, only first aid had been administered. He is also credited along with others with developing what became known as the mobile army surgical hospital, or MASH unit, in the Korean War.
The most recent of his many awards was receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in April.
DeBakey attributed his longevity in part to having never smoked and to genes that helped other members of his family to live into their 90s. Even as a nonagenarian he arose every day at 5 a.m., read in his study for a couple of hours and then drove into work at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, returning home after 6 p.m.
He was born Michel Dabaghi in 1908 to French-speaking Lebanese-Christian immigrants to the U.S., and grew up in Lake Charles, La. He was inspired to become a doctor from chats with local physicians while he worked at a pharmacy owned by his father.
DeBakey said that his greatest professional disappointment was not being able to solve the mystery of arteriosclerosis. He never accepted that cholesterol was the dominant factor in producing the disease. He continued to explore the possibility that a virus or other infectious agent might lead to arteriosclerosis. That link is still being explored by scientists.
Charles S. Lauer is the former vice president- publishing and editorial director of Modern Healthcare. He now is a consultant to the healthcare industry and also serves on the boards of healthcare companies.
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