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Pioneering Heart Surgeon Michael DeBakey Dies at 99

July 14, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Michael DeBakey, the prolific and influential heart surgeon who performed the first successful bypass operation, died July 11 in Houston at age 99. DeBakey's colleague and former student looks back on his medical legacy.

RAY SUAREZ: And finally tonight, remembering a giant in the world of heart surgery and medicine. Judy Woodruff has the story.

PRESENTER: Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just three months ago, Dr. Michael DeBakey sat in the Rotunda of the Capitol to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. President Bush was among those paying tribute to DeBakey’s pioneering work in cardiovascular surgery and research.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: He has dedicated his career to a truly noble ambition: bettering the life of his fellow men.

JUDY WOODRUFF: DeBakey thanked Congress for what would be the last of many high honors he received over his long career.

DR. MICHAEL DEBAKEY, Cardiovascular Surgery Pioneer: Since receiving this award, my cup runneth over. Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael DeBakey was born in Louisiana to Lebanese immigrants in 1908. As a student, he showed a gift for innovation that would endure.

In the early 1930s, he devised the roller pump, which would later become the essential component of the heart-lung machine, taking over the functions of those organs during operations. It signaled the dawning of the era of open-heart surgery.

He would go on to design more than 70 medical devices, including in 1953 the Dacron tube, used to repair damaged arteries. He sewed the first one.

DR. MICHAEL DEBAKEY: My mother was an expert at sewing, so she’s taught me to sew.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the 1960s, DeBakey was among the first to do coronary bypass surgery. In all, he performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during a career that lasted into his 90s.

His notable patients ran the gamut from presidents to prize fighters, Lyndon Johnson, Joe Louis, Boris Yeltsin. The comedian Jerry Lewis was a repeat patient.

JERRY LEWIS, Comedian: You’ve saved my life three times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Michael DeBakey died Friday evening at age 99 in a Houston hospital, where the heart and vascular unit bears his name.

And for more, we turn to Dr. Kenneth Mattox, a colleague and former student of Dr. DeBakey. He’s now the chief of surgery at Ben Taub Hospital and a professor of surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston.

DeBakey's surgical accomplishments

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Mattox, thank you very much for being with us. There are so many areas of his life that we'd like to explore, but of course he's best known as a cardiac and a vascular surgeon. Tell us what he did in that area. You were telling us earlier he was one of the very first to want to explore this area.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX, Ben Taub General Hospital: Yes. Dr. DeBakey is best-known for cardiac and vascular surgery. And when he began, there were no treatments for vascular and cardiac diseases.

And so he went into the area of first the blood vessels, the aorta, and ultimately the heart to say there's got to be a better way to provide surgical answers to these diseases. And he made progress during his remarkable 60, 70 years of productivity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it was unusual at that time.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: It was very unusual. And the operations and treatments were indirect, rather than being directly on the vessels, to repair specifically those areas that were either blocked or those areas that were dilated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sixty thousand surgeries, that's a number we just used, extraordinary. What was it about him as a surgeon? Was it the technique, the hands? What was it?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Well, surgery was only one of multiple areas. It was the man himself who was technically gifted, but he also had a mind that said, "We've got to find a different way to do this," whether it was education, whether it was trauma, whether it was education, whether it was in dealing with equality in gender, and cultural, and ethnic leadership.

His mind was always looking for, how can we find an answer? How can we do things better? And he was even in his 90s working on a new cardiac assist device, which now also bears his name, the DeBakey VAD cardiac assist device.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He invented, I think you're suggesting, a surprising number of not just procedures, but instruments that are still in use in the operating room?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: You cannot go into an operating room anywhere in the world without finding an instrument or a device, especially in cardiac or vascular surgery, which continues his legacy.

A composite of persons, locations

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us a little about what he was like as a person.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Well, that's almost impossible, because Dr. DeBakey was a composite of many different persons and many different locations.

In the operating room and with his patients, he was a tremendous taskmaster, demanding attention to detail and perfection. And he demanded no more of us as students and residents, trainees and associates than he demanded of himself.

In the boardroom, he was a tremendous diplomat. And often, when multiple people would look at an idea, look at a problem, look at a process, they would turn to Dr. DeBakey, and he would say, "Ladies, gentlemen, it seems to me," and come up with a solution that everyone in the room said, "Why didn't we think of that?"

In dealing with the development of a new building, a new idea, a new project, he was tremendous with donors and with individuals who were the architects. And he would often see opportunities that they did not see.

In a conference room, he was able to distill down the essence of education. And at times in a social environment, he would be the most charming, and the most cunning, and sometimes even impish in his approach to whatever the discussion was.

He was many people at many different times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And tough and, you were saying, a perfectionist with those who were learning from him?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Yes. He demanded attention to detail and a pursuit of excellence. And to be less than excellent was unsatisfactory.

All patients treated equally

JUDY WOODRUFF: We mentioned some of the -- just a few of the famous people he operated on or consulted with. The New York Times yesterday described him, among other things, as a name-dropper. What about that?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: I never knew him as a name-dropper. I knew him because I worked in the county hospital most of my career.

I knew him as a man that spent time with both the rich and famous, but also those individuals who had no other option. And he treated everyone equally.

And at the time he would be talking to them or examining them, it would be as if they were the most important person in all the world. Everyone to him who had a medical problem was equal, whether they be a king or whether they be a pauper.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think is most lasting about the legacy of Dr. DeBakey?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: I asked Dr. DeBakey that question on numerous occasions. And he had a lot of legacies, but he, I think, was most proud of the thousands of individuals that he trained and produced master surgeons around the world, who they themselves became the same ripple effect to demand the same kind of attention to detail in whatever country, whatever occupation or specialty of medicine that they entered into.

He was very proud of the many people that he trained. Likewise, he was proud of those legacy areas of the National Institutes of Health, the National Library of Medicine, and his contributions to the military, especially in the Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences, where the things he created will live on and on and on by producing new knowledge, perpetual new information, and new research.

DeBakey's cornerstone achievement

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just briefly, of course, the procedure that you think he's most remembered for?

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Probably the aortic aneurysm replacement. He did the first in the Western world and was still doing that operation on into his 80s and 90s.

He is known for many operations. He has many firsts, did the first coronary artery bypass that was successful, the first carotid endarterectomy. But it was operations on the aorta for which I think he'll have his longest operative memory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dr. Kenneth Mattox, who trained under Dr. Michael DeBakey, we thank you very much for helping us remember him.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Thank you for letting me comment on this remarkable man and his remarkable contributions, probably the most contributing physician of all-time, certainly the greatest physician of the 20th century.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remarkable. Thank you again.