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Correction to This Article
A July 13 Page One obituary of Dr. Michael DeBakey incorrectly said he established what became the Veterans Affairs hospital system. Dr. DeBakey's work led to the establishment of the modern VA's hospital research system and medical research program.
Obituaries

Pioneering Heart Surgeon

Michael DeBakey, center, was an influential surgeon who performed the first successful heart bypass operation. DeBakey stopped performing surgery at age 90, after more than 60,000 operations spanning a 70-year medical career.
Michael DeBakey, center, was an influential surgeon who performed the first successful heart bypass operation. DeBakey stopped performing surgery at age 90, after more than 60,000 operations spanning a 70-year medical career. (1967 Photo By Associated Press)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Michael E. DeBakey, 99, the father of modern cardiovascular surgery, who invented scores of medical procedures and instruments, developed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and established what later became the Veterans Affairs hospital system, died July 11 at Methodist Hospital in Houston. The hospital did not release the cause of death, but he had undergone heart surgery in 2006.

Over a 70-year medical career, Dr. DeBakey became one of the most influential and innovative heart surgeons in history. He changed the practice of cardiac surgery, performed the first successful heart bypass operation and is credited with saving thousands of lives.

"His legacy is holding the fragile and sacred gift of human life in his hands and returning it unbroken," President Bush said in April, while awarding Dr. DeBakey the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor. As a Tulane University medical student in 1932, Dr. DeBakey devised the "roller pump," a necessary part of the heart-lung machine that enabled open-heart surgery.

In the 1950s, he used his sewing skills, which he had learned from his mother when he was a boy, to patch faulty aortas by grafting. The Dacron graft is now used throughout the world on diseased arteries.

He also performed the first successful removal of a blockage of the main artery of the neck, a procedure known as an endarterectomy, which became the standard method for treating stroke. He developed a device in 1963 that helped blood to move from one chamber of the heart to another, and in 1966 he created a partial artificial heart. One of his inventions, the DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device, is an apparatus implanted into the heart to increase blood flow.

Although Dr. DeBakey stopped performing surgery at 90, after more than 60,000 operations, his legacy lives on among the thousands of surgeons he trained, many of whom now lead hospital and medical school departments.

Dr. DeBakey's renown was such that the Duke of Windsor turned to him in 1964 to have an aneurysm removed. He was called on in 1996 when Boris Yeltsin, then running to be the first Russian president in the post-Soviet era, had a heart attack and needed quintuple bypass surgery. Russian doctors were afraid he would not survive an operation. Dr. DeBakey examined him and declared him fit for surgery, as long as it was performed by one of the doctors he had trained. Renat S. Akchurin did the surgery, and Yeltsin survived another 11 years.

On Dec. 31, 2005, Dr. DeBakey suffered a dissecting aortic aneurysm and became the oldest survivor of an operation he devised to repair torn aortas. In a stunning account in the New York Times almost a year later, the physician who had saved so many lives admitted that the pain of the initial incident was so searing that he accepted death as a better alternative.

"It never occurred to me to call 911 or my physician," he told the Times. "As foolish as it may appear, you are, in a sense, a prisoner of the pain, which was intolerable. You're thinking, What could I do to relieve myself of it. If it becomes intense enough, you're perfectly willing to accept cardiac arrest as a possible way of getting rid of the pain."

After the pain passed, he denied the seriousness of his condition. Six weeks after the episode, he finally had the damaged aorta replaced, then he underwent months of rehabilitation.

Michael Ellis DeBakey was born Sept. 7, 1908, to Lebanese immigrants in Lake Charles, La. His father, a pharmacist, taught him to rise early and avoid wasting time. His mother, who tailored handmade clothing for the family and embroidered linens, was enlisted by neighbors to teach their daughters to sew. Her son, the eldest of five children, sat in.

"My mother's teachings inspired me again in the early 1950s, when I designed a graft for replacing a diseased aorta and arteries," he told Time magazine in 2004. "I chose the then-new synthetic cloth Dacron by touch, just as I had done as a boy. I drew the design on paper next, cut the fabric and finally put the prototype together at home on my wife's Singer sewing machine."


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