About Dr. Michael E. DeBakey (1908-2008)
Dr. Michael DeBakey's name is inextricably linked to the history of cardiology. In a surgical career that lasted more than seven decades, he played a key role in inventing and perfecting many procedures that are now considered standard surgical therapies for cardiac and vascular disease.
Dr. DeBakey was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1908. His childhood was shaped by his voracious curiosity, and he decided at an early age to devote himself to medicine. He attended Tulane University as an undergraduate; by special permission, he was allowed to attend medical school while he completed the last two years of his undergraduate studies.
Even as a medical student, Dr. DeBakey began to develop a reputation for surgical skill and willingness to create new solutions to surgical challenges. Dr. DeBakey also invented the roller pump during his student years. This device, which rhythmically propels fluid through a flexible tube, would later become a crucial part of the heart-lung machine used during open heart surgery. Its ability to replicate the rhythmic pulsing of the human heart earned it the name “peristaltic pump.”
During World War II, Dr. DeBakey volunteered for military service and was assigned to the Surgical Consultant's Division of the U.S. Surgeon General's office. His work there led to the development of mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units. These centralized surgical hospitals used airplanes and helicopters to bring wounded soldiers from front-line care centers to surgical hospitals as quickly as possible. First deployed during the Korean War, MASH units were highly successful; a soldier who made it to a MASH unit alive had a 97% chance of survival.
In recognition of this innovation, Dr. DeBakey was awarded the Legion of Merit. He would later play a continuing role in the treatment of military personnel returning from war through his contribution to the creation of the Veteran's Administration Medical Center System.
Dr. DeBakey came to Houston after the war, joining the staff of Houston Methodist Hospital and the faculty of the Baylor College of Medicine. Over the course of his long career in the Texas Medical Center, Dr. DeBakey developed numerous pioneering treatments, including the development of the first artificial grafts for cardiac bypass surgery, the first removal of a blockage of the carotid artery, the first patch-graft angioplasty, the first aorto-coronary artery bypass, and the first successful use of an artificial heart. Together, these innovations have helped to make conditions treatable that were once terminal. And they have helped to save millions of lives worldwide.
Building a Legacy
In addition to his devoted work as a surgeon—work that would eventually include surgery on some 60,000 patients from around the world—Dr. DeBakey's institutional leadership was essential to the development and growth of Houston Methodist Hospital.
Dr. DeBakey was a senior attending physician at Houston Methodist Hospital and the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, and served as Chancellor Emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine. He received the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian award that may be bestowed by the United States Congress—in 2008.
Dr. Michael DeBakey died of natural causes at Houston Methodist Hospital in July 2008. In a career spanning more than 70 years, he had performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries. Other surgeons have used his innovations in cardiovascular surgery worldwide to save the lives of countless millions.
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