Heart Health

14 July 2008

Pioneering heart surgeon dies

Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered such procedures as bypass surgery and invented a host of devices to help heart patients, has died. He was 99.

Dr Michael DeBakey, the world-famous 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.

DeBakey died Friday night at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, US, from "natural causes," according to a statement issued early Saturday by Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital.

"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 Ron Girotto, president of The Methodist Hospital System.

"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 long-time DeBakey rival, said.

Early start
While still in medical school in 1932, DeBakey 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 the start of a lifetime of innovation. The surgical procedures that DeBakey developed once were the wonders of the medical world. Today, they are commonplace procedures in most hospitals.

He also 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.

Dr William T. Butler, a colleague of DeBakey's at Baylor, said in March 2006 that DeBakey established himself with his surgical firsts as the "maestro of cardiovascular surgery."

"Dr DeBakey was never afraid to challenge the status quo, often going against the tide," Butler said. "Some times 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 Saturday as news of his passing spread.

Raised the standard of medical care
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."

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, The Methodist Hospital said.

In 1953, DeBakey performed the first Dacron graft to replace part of an occluded artery.

In the 1960s, he began coronary arterial bypasses.

In 1962, DeBakey received a $2.5 million grant to work on an artificial heart that could be implanted without being linked to an exterior console. In 1966, he was the first to successfully use a partial artificial heart - a left ventricular bypass pump.

The age of the heart transplant
In 1967 Dr Christiaan Bernard in South Africa performed the first human heart transplant in history. In the United States, DeBakey and Cooley were among those who began performing the transplants, but death rates were high because the recipients' bodies rejected the new organs.

His work as an inventor continued. In the late 1990s, DeBakey brought out a ventricular assist device touted as one-tenth the size of current heart pumps that helped ease suffering for patients waiting for heart transplants.

In the late 1990s, he took an active role in creating the Michael E. DeBakey Heart Institute at Hays Medical Centre in Hays, Kansas.

DeBakey was born September 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, Lousiana. He became interested in medicine while listening to physicians chat at his father's pharmacy. He received his bachelor's and medical degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans.

He recalled in 1999 that the time he finished medical school in 1932, "there was virtually nothing you could do for heart disease. If a patient came in with a heart attack, it was up to God."

Early in his career, DeBakey invented a new blood transfusion needle, a new suture scissors and a new colostomy clamp. He began teaching at Tulane in 1937.

During World War II, DeBakey worked in Europe as director of the surgeon general's surgical consultants division, helping develop mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH units) and specialised treatment centres for returning veterans. – (John Porretto/Sapa)

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