For generations, doctors were often reluctant to perform any type of operation involving the heart. The lack of a clear understanding about the heart made treating many conditions difficult. Texas surgeon Michael DeBakey spent decades researching and developing new techniques that have completely changed the understanding of the heart and heart disease. Throughout his career, DeBakey became world-renowned for not only life-saving surgical breakthroughs but also for his innovation in health care.


Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey was born in September 1908 in the Southwest Louisiana city of Lake Charles. His parents were both Lebanese immigrants and were determined to give their children the best education possible, with both sons becoming respected surgeons.


DeBakey completed his undergraduate studies at the prestigious Tulane University in New Orleans, where he also graduated medical school in 1932. He worked hard during medical school and even began experimenting with new devices to aid in surgery. One, a peristaltic pump, or roller pump, became a key component in heart-lung machines developed later. He completed his residency in New Orleans and traveled the world studying with the most respected surgeons of the day.


Early in his career, he developed a reputation for carefully researching all sorts of medical questions and becoming a problem-solver. In 1939, his research led him to conclude that smoking was a leading cause of lung cancer, a find that was confirmed by other researchers and ultimately became one factor in the Surgeon General’s report warning of tobacco’s dangers decades later.


DeBakey served as an army surgeon during World War II. He advocated stationing surgeons closer to the front lines to reduce transport time and thus give patients more of the life-saving minutes they needed to survive. Survival rates increased to the point that the army was inspired to created the famed Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH units) during the Korean War. He also advocated developing a system of veterans medical research centers to help with the special needs of wounded veterans.


DeBakey was hired by the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 1948 where he continued his research into the heart. In the 1950s, he developed grafting techniques to repair broken blood vessels and arteries. He also developed bypass surgeries, operations where surgeons bypass a clogged artery with arteries taken from another part of the body, allowing normal blood flow. The technique is a standard tool in modern heart surgery.


He also worked with the development of the artificial heart. Teams of doctors around the world were researching artificial pumps and hearts to aid surgeries and even one day replace diseased hearts. DeBakey and Dr. Domingo Liotta in 1966 successfully implanted a ventricular assist device, a device that aided blood circulation, in what became one of the first procedures of its kind.


In the 1960s, DeBakey made another innovation by having surgeries filmed so medical students could further study different life-saving techniques. He was a revered figure on the Baylor campus, serving as president of the college from 1969 to 1979 and then as chancellor until 1996.


In addition to serving on numerous health commissions, he wrote several books to educate the public on new understandings of the heart. These books included The Living Heart (1977) and The Living Heart Diet (1984). Millions of people began thinking about the health of their hearts because of these books, inspiring them to exercise more and move to healthier diets.


In 2005, he suffered a rare aortic dissection, a tear in one of the layers of the main artery leading from the heart. DeBakey initially declined surgery, but after he fell unconscious, doctors performed the life-saving procedure that DeBakey himself developed. The 97-year-old was the oldest person in history to undergo the operation. The total cost of the operation and his recovery reportedly cost more than $1 million.


After the operation, he continued to work in medicine. He attended the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new DeBakey Library and Museum at the Baylor College of Medicine. He continued to advise his fellow surgeons and researchers until his death in July 2008, just two months before his one-hundredth birthday.


He was honored by dozens of organizations for his work during his lifetime and afterward. It was estimated by biographers that DeBakey operated on as many as 60,000 people in his 75-year career, equivalent to the entire populations of Anderson or Wise counties. DeBakey saved untold numbers by his own hands or through research that fundamentally transformed medicine. Because of his work, heart conditions of most types are now treatable and even preventable.


Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com.