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Transcript: DeBakey Video Profile

March 20, 2015

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[Dr. John P. McGovern:] Michael DeBakey is a true renaissance man. His interests ranging broadly beyond medicine, to literature, music, history, philosophy, political policy, social issues and varied other areas. He embodies the best in science and politics and advice and wisdom and friendship and all that, but it never steers very, very far from just being a good treater of patients. You know, the patient/doctor relationship is actually extremely important in any kind of healthcare system. American people are very knowledgeable about medical care, and they're knowledgeable about getting good medical care. That's evident also, you see, in increasing use of Medline by the public.

[Narrator:] Michael Ellis DeBakey was born to Lebanese immigrant parents in Lake Charles, Louisiana, September 7th, 1908. His father was a pharmacist and businessman, his mother an accomplished seamstress. The family name was eventually Anglicized from the original spelling. Young Michael's keen intellect manifested itself at a very early age, and as a reward for doing well in his schoolwork, his parents would let him read the Encyclopedia Britannica. He had completed the entire set before entering high school, and his prowess wasn't confined to academics. In those early years, he played several musical instruments, played sports, learned to sew, and enjoyed gardening. DeBakey graduated from the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans in 1932, and within that same year stamped himself as a medical prodigy, for it was at age 23 that he created the roller pump, a device that provided continuous blood flow during operations. This was before the time of blood banks, so Dr. DeBakey used the pump to transfuse blood directly from a donor to a patient. That pump would find a permanent place in the history of medicine when some 20 years later it became a crucial part of the heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery a reality.

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[Announcer:] Yes in democratic America, everybody is doing his bit. There goes Jimmy Stewart on his way to enlist.

[Narrator:] With the outbreak of World War II Dr. DeBakey volunteered, and while serving in the Surgical Consultants Division of the US Surgeon General's Office he saw a need for delivering better surgical care to soldiers on the battlefield. Auxiliary surgery groups or ASGs they'd be called, small mobile units attached to larger field and evacuation hospitals. The initial deployment of an ASG came in 1943 to support the 5th Army in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and it proved that ASGs could maneuver with combat units and sustain operations within just a few miles of the front line. So in the Allied invasion of Normandy, ASGs supported the 1st, 3rd, 7th, and 9th Armies. DeBakey's vision came of age during the Korean War, as the ASGs were renamed mobile army surgical hospitals or MASH. And the post-evacuation mortality of wounded soldiers dropped from 8.5 percent in World War I to 4 percent in World War II and to around 2 and a half percent in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. After World War II, DeBakey's tour was extended a year so he could help shore up the Veteran's Administration Hospital system.

[DeBakey:] Surgeon General Kirk called me in and said I need you to stay on. Would you stay on for another year? I asked the surgeon general to let me call 100 surgeons whom I knew well. Every single one agreed to stay on, which really touched me. I can think of no individual who has made a commitment to veterans and the care of veterans more passionately or more effectively than Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.

[Narrator:] In 1946 DeBakey proposed that the millions of military medical records generated during World War II could provide a starting point for valuable studies of the long-term effects of war time injuries and illnesses. He then drafted a blueprint for an agency to coordinate such research: The Medical Follow-up Agency. Since the agency's creation, as DeBakey predicted hundreds of follow-up studies on veterans have produced a wealth of information about the progress of countless medical conditions. In 1958, the agency began compiling a database of pairs of twins who had served in the military. The resulting twin registry, which now lists nearly 16,000 pairs, remains a tremendous resource for research. In the 1996 keynote address to the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council Dr. DeBakey examined the 50-year history of the Veteran's Medical Follow-up Agency evolution and prospects. His handwritten first draft of that speech is illustrative of the fact that DeBakey always preferred pen or pencil and paper, writing it out longhand rather than use a typewriter, word processor, or computer. In fact, colleagues say he didn't even own a personal computer until his wife gave him a laptop in the final months of his life. When DeBakey returned to civilian life he went back to the Tulane School of Medicine, but in 1948, moved to Baylor University in Houston which at the time had a small, rather undistinguished medical school. Early on, Dr. DeBakey's quest to develop a world class medical center in Houston met with opposition and he became disenchanted, planning to return to Tulane. The Baylor Board of Trustees intervened, however, and persuaded DeBakey to stay at Baylor giving him carte blanche to fix things. The fix was accelerated soon after when the Houston Navy Hospital was turned over to the Veteran's Administration and DeBakey was asked to help staff and run it. The VA Hospital became a teaching facility of the Baylor College of Medicine, and it would later be renamed the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran's Affairs Medical Center. DeBakey's surgical excellence and innovation soon made the medical world take notice of Baylor and Houston and helped transform both. Dr. DeBakey became a professor of surgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine where he later served as president from 1969 to 1979 and chancellor from 1979 to 1996. As the years passed, he earned a worldwide reputation as a medical statesman, advising every US president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, as well as international heads of state and royalty. When Great Britain's Duke of Windsor traveled to Houston for a date with DeBakey's scalpel, he quipped, "I'm going to see the maestro."

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[Narrator:] In the 1950's Dr. DeBakey partnered with another brilliant heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley. They formed a formable team at the Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital in Houston, but in 1960, Cooley went his separate way. One of the reasons that I separated from Mike was that I felt that he was too abusive of all of his residents and medical students and so forth, and I didn't think I could be permanently involved in that environment. I was never, let's say, throwing anything around or hitting anybody or anything like that. There may have been times when I was pretty sharp with my tongue, but mostly I was trying to to show them how to eliminate errors.

[Dr. Lindberg:] You know, Dr. DeBakey sometimes has a reputation of being a little hard to satisfy at least in the operating room. But he's incredibly good to patients.

[Narrator:] DeBakey the tough task master existed in sharp contrast with the Dr. DeBakey whose soothing, compassionate, nurturing demeanor with patients became a hallmark of his career. Dr. O.H. Frazier recalls his student days and DeBakey's response to Frazier's being late for a surgery that was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. He said, "Well, you know, if you really cared, if you actually cared about the patient, you would have been here at 6:00. You see, if you were here at 6:00, then you could have seen the patient, shared his anxieties, seen what the anesthesia could do to help calm them, and you could have been with him and you could have learned a lot. But, of course, you would have to care to do that, but since you obviously don't care…" You know, he just wouldn't let you off the hook. When you look at his schedule and what he needed to accomplish within a 24-hour period or the week-period or whatever, I mean he didn't have any real free time, and so things that would interfere with his time schedule would be very irritating to him, and he would want to minimize those, and so he did it by being a tough taskmaster, and, you know, once he was on to you, you made sure it didn't happen again. His schedule went on as programmed.

[Narrator:] Through the 1950s and '60s DeBakey's accomplishments laid a solid foundation for his soaring reputation. In 1952, Dr. DeBakey successfully repaired an aortic aneurism – a ballooning of an artery – by cutting out the damaged segment in the abdomen and replacing it with a graft from a cadaver. In 1953, he performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy, the removal of fatty plaque from the neck arteries as a treatment for stroke. DeBakey can actually thank luck for one of his major innovations. You see, seeking to use synthetic instead of cadaver grafts he went to a department store to buy some nylon, but the store was out of nylon, so a clerk suggested a new product – Dacron. Dr. DeBakey liked its feel, bought a yard, and then used his wife's sewing machine to create his first artificial arterial patches and tubes. Dacron turned out to last for decades as a surgical graft, while nylon by contrast broke down after about a year. In 1964, Dr. DeBakey's team accomplished the first successful coronary artery bypass using a transplanted leg vein to reroute blood beyond the blocked coronary arteries, and in 1966, he performed the first successful implantation of a ventricular assist device, VAD, that he had developed – a heart pump to effectively bypass the left ventricle of the heart, the chamber that does the pumping. It was also in the mid'60s that DeBakey chaired President Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stoke. In addition, regional medical centers can provide the most advanced diagnosis and treatment for heart disease and cancer and stroke and other major diseases. There were a number of things that came out of it that were worthwhile. For example, you take the widespread acceptance of the coronary intensive care units. They really came directly out of the RMP program. That's a good example. I would say that the Cancer Institute's program largely was developed as a consequence of this report. Even though the Regional Medical Program failed, the Cancer Institute, took off. He creates systems, concepts, ideas, and he has the stick-to-it-iveness to see them through to reality.

[Narrator:] One of the important visions that DeBakey began pursuing during the 1960s and '70s was the total artificial heart. In 1963, he convinced Congress to allocate funding for an artificial heart program at NIH to spur the development of mechanical heart replacements. Within a few years, he and other researchers were testing their experimental hearts in animals and discovering myriad problems that would have to be solved before the devices could be used in humans. In 1969, some 9 years after Dr. Cooley dissolved the DeBakey partnership, the two were plunged into an infamous feud when Cooley without DeBakey's knowledge or approval commandeered an artificial heart prototype that DeBakey had developed and implanted it into a patient. For 40 years, DeBakey refused to talk to Cooley. In the 1980s, DeBakey happened to perform a lifesaving heart transplant on an engineer who worked for NASA, and that chance encounter marked the start of a collaboration between the space agency and the surgeon, so working with NASA engineers, DeBakey helped develop a space age version of the ventricular assist devise.

[Dr. Lindberg:] There are scores of surgical instruments that he invented, and this latest ventricular assist device is really a wonderful little contraption, this marvelous little pump. I mean he has a pump which is not much bigger than my thumb that can pump six liters a minute. It's about the size of a AA battery. It's an axial flow pump, so there are no valves, so it makes it very simple, you see, and because of its size, it's easily implantable in the chest. Now the pump is interesting for you historians. This is very much like the Archimedes screw or as Dr. DeBakey would say Ar-kim-a-dees

[phonetic]. But there's a diffuser, and as you come through with the impellor here, it's actually rotating on the basis of having magnets in the impellor as well as in the actual pump itself, on the frame. The blood would come into the ventricle from the left atrium, and it would come into the pump and the pump would just move the blood right on through. Initially, our approach was to have this last for the amount of time that would allow them to be a good candidate for a bridge to transplant. I think the most important of the innovations in all of this will be the use of these pumps, auxiliary pumps, in chronic heart failure.

[Narrator:] DeBakey's tiny pump, battery driven and controlled by a miniature computer, was first implanted in Germany, and DeBakey was there to witness the successful surgery firsthand. A prolific humanitarian, DeBakey performed more than 60,000 cardiovascular procedures and trained thousands of surgeons who practiced throughout the world. To express their appreciation, those students founded the Michael E. DeBakey International Surgical Society. Through a career that spanned more than seven decades, Dr. DeBakey received dozens of national and international awards including: US Army's Legion of Merit in 1945, the Rudolph Matas Award in Vascular Surgery, 1954, the American Medical Association's Distinguished Service Award in 1959, the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1963 -- -- that award was renamed the Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2007 -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, the National Medal of Science in 1987, the United Nations Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008. He's earned the fame that he had, and he clearly has demonstrated his own personal commitment to excellence.

[Narrator:] Throughout his career Michael E. DeBakey championed the National Library of Medicine and was a tireless supporter and promoter of the NLM, twice serving as chair of the library's Board of Regents. And it was, in fact, DeBakey who as a member of the second Hoover Commission in the early '50s spearheaded the effort to have the Armed Forces Medical Library transferred to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, be renamed the National Library of Medicine and be established on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

[Dr. DeBakey:] To be perfectly honest I think the establishment of the National Library of Medicine has had such a tremendous impact upon the expansion of knowledge and transmission of that knowledge and, you know, today there is virtually no lag between new knowledge coming out of any kind of research activity, and its clinical application. The National Library of Medicine has done a lot more to make the library a much more active force in the transmission of new information, and, in a sense, in the education of not only the medical community, but the public itself.

[Dr. Lindberg:] We appreciate all that you've done for the Library. Thank you very much.

[Dr. DeBakey:] It's been really a very, very satisfying and a great pleasure for me to see what the Library has done and particularly to see, Don, what you've done with the Library, because during your tenure, you have really expanded its activity beyond anything where we had any vision of for the Library. It's really extraordinary.

[Narrator:] Late in his career, whenever Dr. DeBakey was asked about some of the most dramatic medical advances since his days as a young doctor in the 1930s, he would cite the simple case of a man with a fractured hip. His chances of surviving was virtually zero because they would put him to bed and then he would develop pneumonia and there was no significant treatment for pneumonia at the time. Today he gets a new hip replacement and walks out of the hospital two or three days later.

[Narrator:] Even as Dr. DeBakey entered his 99th year, he still exhibited the same drive to ensure that patients' needs were being met. We would go and see them and he would go and make rounds at the age of 99 and we would come up with him, and he would be on top of it and he would call them and even late in his life he had the same dedication to take care of patients. He knew exactly what he should do.

[Narrator:] In his later years, Dr. DeBakey realized yet another of his dreams – the creation of a high school that would prepare young people, many of whom are minorities, for potential careers in medicine.

[Dr. Lindberg:] He just had the idea that he ought to do something to help all of the people, particularly minorities at Houston, to try medical science, to enter the profession. So the combination of education and a career that is satisfying provides an opportunity to be a good citizen and to contribute to the society in which that citizen lives, and in the final analysis what nobler goal is there in life?

[Narrator:] Dr. Michael DeBakey was a lifelong scholar offering all or parts of more than 1,300 articles and books. DeBakey took who he was and what he had to say very personally, always choosing his words carefully, and each and every word flowed from his mind to his hand, to the page, whether it was a letter, pamphlet, book, or lecture, and no matter the subject, it was well thought out, organized and unfiltered. As if providing a measure of synergy to the DeBakey legend, in the last year of DeBakey's life Denton Cooley initiated a reconciliation and their rift was mended. Dr. Michael E. DeBakey's amazing life carried him to within two months of his 100th birthday. The acknowledged father of modern cardiovascular surgery passed away quietly in 2008 and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetary.

Last Reviewed: March 20, 2015