On February 9, 1949, Michael Ellis DeBakey, M.D. applied for dual appointment as surgical consultant and member of the Dean's Committee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Houston, Texas. This simple application marked not only a continuation of Dr. DeBakey's pioneering efforts toward advanced health care for Veterans, but a commitment to ensure the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston would be a first-rate health facility and hold a prominent position in the medical community.
The father of modern cardiovascular surgery, DeBakey is internationally recognized as an ingenious medical inventor and innovator, a gifted and dedicated teacher, a premier surgeon, an international medical statesman, and a steadfast Veteran.
DeBakey earned bachelor's, master's, and medical degrees from Tulane University * in New Orleans. During his senior year at Tulane University School of Medicine, he worked in the laboratory of legendary vascular surgeon Dr. Alton Ochsner, who succeeded Dr. Rudolph Matas, the "father of vascular surgery," as chairman of the Department of Surgery. Ochsner became the mentor who directed the early development of DeBakey's medical career, and between 1932 and 1942, the two men published numerous scientific articles, including the first publication on the relationship of cancer of the lung to tobacco smoking.
At the age of 23, while still in medical school, DeBakey devised a continuous-flow roller pump for blood transfusions. The full significance of this invention was not realized for another two decades, when it became a major component of the heart-lung machine in the first successful open-heart operation. During his residency in surgery, he invented a blood transfusion needle, suture scissors, and a colostomy clamp. Many more inventions followed throughout his career!
Following graduation in 1932, the fledgling physician served his internship and surgical residency at the New Orleans Charity Hospital before pursuing additional training opportunities in Europe. In Strasbourg, France, he studied with Dr. Rene Leriche, then the world's leading expert in vascular surgery, and spent another year with Dr. Martin Kirschner in Heidelberg, Germany, recognized then as a center for outstanding surgical training.
Returning to the United States in 1937 after completing his European studies, DeBakey accepted a position on the faculty of the Tulane University School of Medicine's Department of Surgery.
By the beginning of World War II, DeBakey had already achieved a national reputation as an authority on vascular disease, but rather than remaining at Tulane to enhance his career, the young physician felt morally bound to serve his country during the conflict. "My parents came here as immigrants from Lebanon and found success," he told Dr. Ochsner, "and I feel I owe a lot to this country."
In the early 1940s, he took a leave of absence from the Tulane faculty and volunteered for military service, joining the Surgeon General's staff and rising to the rank of Colonel and Chief of the Surgical Consultants Division. He went to Europe, where he performed surgery, inspected field hospitals, and took an active role in caring for the wounded. This first-hand knowledge provided much of the material for a book and a number of other publications, including recommendations for the proper staged management of war wounds. This led to the development of mobile army surgical hospitals or M.A.S.H. units. His contributions earned him the Legion of Merit in 1945.
At the end of the war, DeBakey recommended the creation of specialized medical centers in different areas of the United States to treat wounded military personnel returning from war. From that recommendation evolved the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) system. In addition, he proposed the systematic medical follow-up of Veterans, which led to the establishment of the Commission on Veterans Medical Problems of the National Research Council and an extensive VAMC research program.
In October 1948, DeBakey accepted the position as chairman of Surgery at the Baylor University College of Medicine, the predecessor of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. That same year, through his work with the Hoover Commission, DeBakey was instrumental in the conversion of the old Houston Navy Hospital to the Veterans Administration Hospital on April 15, 1949. Acting on orders from President Truman to assume operation of the Navy Hospital, Warren Magnuson, M.D., the medical director of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., called upon DeBakey to organize and direct staffing at the hospital. DeBakey, with the help of the full-time faculty at Baylor University College of Medicine, provided the medical staff and established the Dean's Committee. As chief surgeon at the Houston Veterans Administration Hospital, DeBakey also created an accredited residency program for the facility.
In the 1950s, DeBakey further developed his theory that there must be a way for a surgeon either to cut open a blocked artery, remove the obstruction, and sew the artery back together, or alternatively, bypass the obstruction completely. Basing his work on this unshakable conviction, he took his first step toward success, when he purchased some fabric from a Houston store, and using a craft he had learned from his mother as a child, created the first Dacron prosthetic artery on his wife’s sewing machine. In 1954 at the Houston Veterans Administration Hospital, he used such a Dacron graft successfully in a patient for the first time, as a replacement following resection of an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta. With the collaboration of a research associate from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences, DeBakey developed a knitting machine to produce the first seamless Dacron tubes. The development gave great impetus to the advancement of vascular surgery.
In 1952, DeBakey performed successful resection and homograft replacement of an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta. In January 1953, he performed the first successful resection and replacement with a homograft of an aneurysm of the descending thoracic aorta. Seven months later, DeBakey completed the first carotid endarterectomy, the removal of a blockage of the main artery of the neck that supplies blood to the brain, and the modern era of the surgical treatment of stroke was born. Before the end of the decade, DeBakey had developed a series of innovative surgical techniques for the treatment of all aneurysms, the swelling of an artery caused by a weakness in the artery wall, of the aorta and major arteries. This enabled surgeons to save thousands of lives in the years ahead.
In 1963, DeBakey received the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Research for "his pioneer contributions in cardiovascular surgery [which] include three successful surgical treatments for the first time of a number of life-threatening cardiovascular disorders. His laboratory investigations, translated with extraordinary courage and unprecedented skill to the patient, have resulted in the correction and cure of previously incurable cardiovascular disease replacing chronic disease and disability, or sudden death, with vigorous, happy, and productive life."
In 1964, DeBakey triggered the most explosive era in modern cardiac surgery, when he performed the first successful coronary bypass, once again paving the way for surgeons worldwide to offer hope to thousands of patients who might otherwise succumb to heart disease every year. Two years later, the surgeon made medical history again, when he was the first to use a partial artificial heart (the left ventricular assist pump) successfully to solve the problems of a patient who could not be weaned from the heart-lung machine following open-heart surgery.
Later in the decade, the surgeon supervised the first successful multi-organ transplant, where a heart, both kidneys, and lung were transplanted from a single donor to four separate recipients.
Also in the mid-1960s, DeBakey pioneered the field of telemedicine with the first demonstration of open-heart surgery to be transmitted overseas by satellite. This allowed the medical staff at a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland to view the aortic valve replacement procedure DeBakey was performing in Houston.
By this time, such was this physician's fame that numerous world figures turned to him, not only for personal health care, but for the single privilege of being associated with the man whose likeness appeared on the May 28, 1965 cover of Time Magazine and whom Britain's Duke of Windsor called "the maestro" when asked why he selected DeBakey to operate on him. DeBakey has received more than 50 honorary degrees from prestigious universities throughout the world and countless honors and awards, all celebrating not only his dedication to medical education, research, and health care, but also his compassion, humanitarianism, integrity, and good faith.
In the mid-1980s, encouraged by the development of cyclosporine to prevent organ rejection, DeBakey re-instated a program of heart transplantation that had been interrupted because of rejection. He also continued to concentrate his research on the artificial heart, working closely with the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) to perfect a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), now known as the DeBakey VAD, which helps restore the cardiac output to normal function in order to relieve the failing heart.
Through the years, the work of this great humanitarian has saved the lives of thousands of people, trained thousands of surgeons who are also saving lives around the world, and, because he has brought his professional wisdom to bear on public policy, he has become the world's most renowned medical statesman. Virtually every U.S. president since Harry S Truman, as well as numerous heads of state worldwide, requested DeBakey's advice and counsel, and he continued to be sought after throughout the United States and the world.
The year 2004 marked 55 years DeBakey served as the first chairman of the Dean's Committee at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston. Reflecting on his many accolades and honors, DeBakey was especially proud of his work for our Nation's Veterans and holds a special place in his heart for them, "I have always been proud of the standards of excellence the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston has maintained, and I feel extremely honored for this outstanding facility to bear my name. The quality of care the VA provides for our Veterans reflects the respect and appreciation that we all have for these courageous men and women."
In recognition of DeBakey's tireless efforts on behalf of our Nation's Veterans and his lifetime of service to all humanity, President George W. Bush signed Public Law 108-70, Section 243 on December 6, 2003 officially changing the name of the Houston VA hospital to the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
On October 16, 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law S. 474 to award Congress’s highest and most distinguished civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.
DeBakey died on Friday, July 11, 2008 at 9:38 p.m. from natural causes at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. He was 99 year old. He was buried among his fellow soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery * on July 18, 2008. A small, solemn group of attendees at the graveside included DeBakey's widow, Katrin DeBakey, pictured with Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates; their daughter Olga; MEDVAMC Director Edgar L. Tucker; and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake.
"Dr. DeBakey loved this nation and had deep respect and gratitude for the men and women who have defended her. Throughout his life, this was evident in his thoughts, words, and deeds," said Edgar L. Tucker, MEDVAMC director (2001 - 2009). "The VA is a richer organization because of Dr. DeBakey. He will be dearly missed."
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