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.
Pioneering Heart Surgeon

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."

As a reward for doing well in his schoolwork, his parents let him read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He played several musical instruments, participated in sports, sewed and maintained a garden with his brother.

He graduated from Tulane, in New Orleans, in 1930 and received his medical degree two years later. He completed two years of surgical residency training at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and received a master's of science degree at Tulane in 1935 for research on peptic ulcers. He then went to Europe to study under two prominent surgeons: Rene Leriche of the University of Strasbourg, France, and Martin Kirschner of the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

With his mentor at Tulane, Alton Ochsner, Dr. DeBakey was among the first to link lung cancer to smoking in a medical journal article in 1939. But most of his life's work related to the heart, blood vessels and the causes of arteriosclerosis.

He volunteered for military service during World War II and was assigned to the surgeon general's office, where his work resulted in the creation of MASH units and the Veterans Affairs hospital research system. Dr. DeBakey also proposed systematic follow-up studies of veterans with certain medical problems, which eventually became the VA's medical research program. He received the Legion of Merit in 1945 for his wartime achievements.

After the war, Dr. DeBakey returned to Tulane as an associate professor of surgery, and in 1948 was named chairman of the department of surgery at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston. He remained at Baylor for the rest of his academic career, eventually becoming president, then chancellor, of the medical school. He also was director of the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center in Houston.

Early in his career, he became fascinated with atherosclerosis, also known as "hardening of the arteries," when the prognosis was poor and victims usually died by the age of 50. During the 1950s, Dr. DeBakey was the first to classify arterial disease by location, characteristic and pattern, making diagnosis much easier, although the cause remained unknown.

His innovations in surgery were not limited to the heart. He revolutionized treatments for strokes and aneurysms, replacing damaged blood vessels with a segment of the intestine. The once-risky procedure later became a standard surgical practice.

The first time Dr. DeBakey performed the operation, he said in a 2006 interview, the patient "happened to be from Lake Charles, a bus driver who was having what we call TIA's, transient ischemic attacks . . . when he was driving a bus. I explained to him what was involved, that the operation was a relatively simple technical procedure. And I think maybe because I was from Lake Charles too, he had confidence in what I said, and . . . it fortunately proved very successful. In fact, he lived 19 years after that, died of a heart attack. Never had any more transient ischemic attacks."

In 1963, Dr. DeBakey's work in arterial disease was recognized with an Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award. A year later, he removed a large vein from a patient's leg, rerouting blood around the damaged areas between the aorta and coronary arteries, thus becoming the first doctor to successfully perform what is commonly called bypass surgery.

In 1965, while he performed open-heart surgery in Houston, the operation was beamed by satellite to medical faculty members at Geneva University in Switzerland. Dr. DeBakey explained the procedure, in English and French, as he operated. It was believed to be the first practice of telemedicine.

His early prediction that an artificial heart could be practical prompted widespread skepticism, but he successfully transplanted the first partial-artificial heart in 1966. The first full artificial heart, developed in Dr. DeBakey's lab at the Baylor College of Medicine, was implanted into a dying 47-year-old man by a colleague, Denton Cooley, in 1969. That surgery caused one of medicine's historic feuds; Dr. DeBakey felt that his decade-long work on the device had been stolen. The men finally ended the rift in 2007 when Cooley's Cardiovascular Surgical Society presented Dr. DeBakey with a lifetime achievement award.

He did not shy away from taking stands that could be controversial, if he believed they were for the good of the public. He led the movement to establish the National Library of Medicine and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. He was chairman of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke, and his advice was sought by presidents since Harry S. Truman.

Late in his career, Dr. DeBakey argued that improvements in cardiovascular care of humans could not have occurred without medical research on animals.

"So to stop animal research, you see, is, I think, a way of saying, 'Well, I don't care about any future advances in medicine. Let people suffer,' " he said. "I can't accept that kind of philosophy. I don't think that's humane either."

Throughout his career, he published more than 1,600 articles and several books, including "The Living Heart" (1977) and the best-selling "The Living Heart Diet" (1984).

Among his many awards were the 1987 National Medal of Science and the 1969 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was cited in 2000 as a "living legend" by the Library of Congress.

He was a member of Cosmos Club, Federal City Club and University Club in Washington.

Dr. DeBakey's first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, died of a heart attack in 1972. Dr. DeBakey, who had been performing cardiac surgery at the time, rushed to his wife's bedside but could not save her life. Two of their sons, Ernest and Barry DeBakey, preceded him in death.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, German film actress Katrin Fehlhaber; their daughter, Olga-Katarina DeBakey; and two sons from his first marriage, Michael DeBakey Jr. and Denis DeBakey.

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