Michael DeBakey, Rebuilder of Hearts, Dies at 99


Associated Press

Dr. Christiaan Barnard of South Africa, left, with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey and Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz of Brooklyn in 1967.
By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN
Published: July 13, 2008

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, whose innovative heart and blood vessel operations made him one of the most influential doctors in the United States, died Friday night in Houston, where he lived. He was 99.


Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Dr. Michael E. DeBakey during a 2006 interview in Houston.
His death at the Methodist Hospital was announced by the hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, where Dr. DeBakey was chancellor emeritus.
 

 

 

“Many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever,” The Journal of the American Medical Association said in 2005.

 

 

 

 

Dr. DeBakey’s pioneering surgical procedures in bypassing blocked arteries in the neck, legs and heart have been performed on millions of patients around the world. By the time he stopped a regular surgical schedule, when he was in his 80s, he had performed more than 60,000 operations.

 

He was also instrumental in making Houston a major center for heart surgery and research and transforming Baylor into one of the nation’s great medical education and research institutions.

And he was a leader in developing mechanical devices to assist failing hearts. An early invention, the roller pump, devised while he was in medical school in the 1930s, became the central component of the heart-lung machine, which takes over the functions of the heart and lungs during surgery by supplying oxygenated blood to the brain. It helped inaugurate the era of open-heart surgery.

One of Dr. DeBakey’s innovations helped preserve his own life in 2006, when he underwent surgery to repair a torn aorta. He had devised the operation 50 years earlier. He spent months making what he called a miraculous recovery and then returned to an active schedule.

A number of his surgical inno-vations and observations were initially ridiculed. While working at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1939, Dr. DeBakey and Dr. Alton Ochsner made one of the first links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Many prominent doctors derided the concept. Then, in 1964, the surgeon general documented the link.

 

 

 

 

Dr. DeBakey went on to discover — again in the face of professional skepticism — that Dacron grafts were excellent substitutes for damaged parts of arteries; the finding allowed surgeons to repair previously inoperable aneurysms of the aorta in the chest and abdomen.
 

 
 

 

 
 

 

His fame extended far outside operating rooms and medical colleges. His care of ailing world leaders made headlines. And with organizational and political skills and energy as enormous as his pride, Dr. DeBakey traveled the world well into advanced age, lecturing and helping to build cardiovascular centers. In 2005 alone he made four international trips.

 

In the cold war, Dr. DeBakey made about 20 visits to Moscow to lecture. The trust he earned helped shape recent history when, in a consultation in Russia, he determined that President Boris N. Yeltsin, who had fallen ill during a re-election campaign in 1996, could undergo coronary bypass surgery. Yeltsin’s doctors had contended that the president could not survive an operation, Dr. DeBakey said.

 

 

 

 

That consultation was credited with saving Yeltsin’s presidency, if not his life. (Yeltsin died last year at 76.)

 

“Calling in Dr. DeBakey was very important, a signal that he was in very serious condition, and consulting with a world leader in surgery this way was almost unthinkable in the Soviet period,” said Marshall I. Goldman, a Russian expert and senior scholar at Harvard.

 

 

 

 

In World War II, Dr. DeBakey helped modernize battlefield surgery by urging that doctors be moved from hospitals to the front lines, where only first aid had previously been given. Dr. DeBakey said that he and others created early versions of what became the mobile army surgical hospital, or MASH unit, in the Korean War. For changing the strategy of treating the wounded, the Army awarded him the Legion of Merit.

 

 

 

 

Dr. DeBakey also helped develop a medical program to care for returning war veterans. The Veterans Affairs hospital in Houston is named for him. And he was a driving force in rejuvenating the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., and turning it into the world’s leading repository of medical information.

Dr. DeBakey advised a number of presidents about health issues and, he said, consulted in the personal care of two of them: Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Even though Dr. DeBakey was on Nixon’s enemies list, the president invited him to the White House for a briefing after one of Dr. DeBakey’s visits to the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. DeBakey attributed his longevity in part to never having smoked and to genes that helped other members of his family live into their 90s. A relatively short man who looked 20 years younger than his age, he could fit into his Army uniform in his later years despite a lack of regular physical exercise, he said.

Even in his 90s, Dr. DeBakey arose at 5 a.m. every day, wrote in his study for two hours and then drove, often in a sports car, to the hospital, where he stayed until 6 p.m. After dinner, he usually returned to his library for more reading or writing before retiring after midnight.

Skilled Innovator

Michael Ellis DeBakey never lost the Southern drawl he acquired growing up in Lake Charles, La. He was born on Sept. 7, 1908, the oldest of five children of Lebanese-Christian immigrants who moved to the United States to escape religious intolerance in the Middle East. His parents chose Cajun country because French was spoken there, as it had been in Lebanon.

Dr. DeBakey credited much of his surgical success to his mother, Raheeja, for teaching him to sew, crochet and knit.

He was inspired to become a doctor from chats with local physicians while he worked at a pharmacy owned by his father, Shaker Morris DeBakey, who also owned rice farms.

While attending schools in Lake Charles and earning undergraduate and medical degrees from Tulane, he played the saxophone and clarinet in a band.

As a medical student, he showed a gift for innovation when an instructor asked him to find a pump to study pulse waves in arteries. From library research, he fashioned older pumps and rubber tubing into one that served the instructor’s purpose, calling it a roller pump.

 

 

 

 

This was before the time of blood banks, so Dr. DeBakey used the pump to transfuse blood directly from a donor to a patient. The pump was later adapted for use in the heart-lung machine.

 

New York Times
Obituary Page
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