HOUSTON: Michael DeBakey, the cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered such now-common procedures as bypass surgery and invented a host of devices to help heart patients, has died. He was 99.
“Dr. DeBakey’s reputation brought many people into this institution, and he treated them all: heads of state, entertainers, businessmen and presidents, as well as people with no titles and no means,” said the president of The Methodist Hospital System. He said the surgeon “has improved the human condition and touched the lives of generations to come.”
While still in medical school in 1932, he invented the roller pump, which became the major component of the heart-lung machine, beginning the era of open-heart surgery. The machine takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery.
It was only a start of a lifetime of innovation. The surgical procedures that DeBakey developed were once the wonders of the medical world. Today, they are commonplace procedures.
He was a pioneer in the effort to develop artificial hearts and heart pumps to assist patients waiting for transplants, and helped create more than 70 surgical instruments.
In early 2006, DeBakey underwent surgery for a damaged aorta — a procedure he had developed.
In a rare interview published later that year, DeBakey gave details of the operation, performed when he was 97. “It is a miracle,” he said. “I really should not be here.” He said he at first gambled that his aorta would heal on its own and refused to be admitted to a hospital, and was unresponsive and near death when his doctors and his wife decided to proceed, despite his age. He then spent several months in the hospital.
As he recovered, DeBakey told his doctors he was glad they had operated, despite his earlier refusals. “If they hadn’t done it, I’d be dead.”
William T. Butler, a colleague of DeBakey’s, said in March 2006 that DeBakey established himself with his surgical firsts as the “maestro of cardiovascular surgery.” Dr. Butler said: “Dr. DeBakey was never afraid to challenge the status quo, often going against the tide. Sometimes his colleagues did not really accept his visionary ideas, particularly as he propelled beyond the boundaries of existing scientific dogma.”
But the accolades poured in on Saturday as news of the death spread. Baylor College of Medicine President Dr. Peter G. Traber recorded a taped webcast for the college community saying DeBakey “created the foundations of modern surgical practice,” and always looked for new ways to treat patients ravaged by heart disease.
Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. George Noon called his long-time partner “the greatest surgeon of the 20th century” who “single-handedly raised the standard of medical care, teaching and research around the world.”
In a 1985 interview, he said: “I’m accused of being a perfectionist and, in the way it’s usually defined, I guess I am. In medicine, and certainly in surgery, you have to be as perfect as possible. There’s no room for mistakes.”
DeBakey was the first to perform replacement of arterial aneurysms and obstructive lesions in the mid-1950s. He later developed bypass pumps and connections to replace excised segments of diseased arteries.
A tireless worker and a stern taskmaster, DeBakey had scores of patients under his care at any one time, helping to establish his name as a leading cardiovascular surgeon.
He performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his 70-year career. “Man was born to work hard,” he said.
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