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Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, 1908 - 2008

'Magician of the heart'

He performed the first coronary bypass, raised the idea of MASH units and tied smoking to cancer.

July 13, 2008|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, a medical pioneer who was the driving force in developing the field of cardiac surgery, operating on more than 60,000 patients and developing medical technology that saved millions more, has died. He was 99.

DeBakey died Friday at Methodist Hospital in Houston, the Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital announced, without specifying the cause of death.

In his highly influential career, DeBakey performed the first coronary artery bypass surgery and the first carotid endarterectomy to prevent strokes. He developed the pump that is the key component of the heart-and-lung machines routinely used on patients during heart surgery and an artificial heart now used to keep patients alive while they wait for their own heart to improve.

He also developed the concept of the mobile army surgical hospital -- immortalized in the film "M*A*S*H." He also played a key role in the creation of the National Library of Medicine and transformed the Baylor College of Medicine and its Texas Medical Center from a third-rate hospital into a nationally recognized center of excellence for heart care.

He was the go-to guy for the rich and the famous, caring for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and comedian Jerry Lewis, among others. But he was equally solicitous of the non-celebrity patients who passed through his surgical suite, spending time with their families and often staying overnight in his office when he thought a patient might be in danger.

Yeltsin called him "a magician of the heart," and the Journal of the American Medical Assn. said many consider him to be the "the greatest surgeon ever."

"His contributions have been enormous, and he will leave an amazing legacy," said Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Unlike many of his famous contemporaries, DeBakey "has exported his know-how to the world."

"There is no question that he was one of the pioneers of cardiovascular surgery in the last half of the 20th century," Dr. Denton Cooley, president and surgeon-in-chief at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and longtime DeBakey rival, said Saturday.

The heart was a virtually untouchable organ when DeBakey received his medical degree, and cardiovascular surgery was little more than a glint in the eyes of a few physicians. He trained as a general surgeon under the mentorship of Dr. Alton Ochsner of Tulane University.

DeBakey first saw a living heart in 1933, while he was a young intern at New Orleans Charity Hospital. Police had brought in a young stabbing victim and his pulsating heart could be clearly seen through the opening in his chest.

"I saw it beating and it was beautiful, a work of art, an awe-inspiring sight," he later told United Press International. "I still have an almost religious sense when I work on the heart. It is something God makes and we have yet to duplicate."

His creativity was evident early. While still in medical school, he invented a hand-cranked roller pump to help a researcher study pulse waves in fluids, such as blood. That device, in which the pump components never touched the fluid, was quickly adapted for use in blood transfusions and other applications. Eventually, it became the core of the heart-lung machine, invented in 1953 by Dr. John H. Gibbon Jr., which made coronary artery bypass and other types of heart surgery possible.

After DeBakey joined Baylor in 1948, he began developing theories and surgical techniques for repairing and replacing diseased arteries. One of his first interests was repairing aneurysms in the aorta -- dangerous bulges in the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

Such an aneurysm could be surgically removed, but he needed something to replace the tissue or the aorta would become too small. DeBakey had purchased at a Houston department store synthetic cloth made of nylon or Orlon, looking for a replacement. One day, all the store had in stock was a new material called Dacron, so he bought a yard of that instead. Working on his wife's sewing machine, he fashioned the fabric into tubes the same size as blood vessels and implanted them in animals. They proved ideal.

"Unlike other materials, the body did not reject Dacron, and tissue was attracted to it," he said later. "It would hold onto it."

He sewed the Dacron graft into the first human patient Sept. 2, 1954. The patient lived 13 more years. Others since have survived much longer.

DeBakey subsequently convinced a textile manufacturer to begin knitting the Dacron into tubes in the same way that athletic socks are knitted. He considered this one of his most important achievements -- much more significant than his later work with an artificial heart.

"How many will receive an artificial heart?" he asked. "Not many, relative to the millions with heart disease.

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