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July 18th, 2008
11:38 AM ET

Remembering a medical legend, with gratitude

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent
If you mention Michael DeBakey’s name to just about any surgeon in the country, you are likely
to get a colorful story. Called a “rock star,” and the greatest surgeon of the 20th century, Dr.
DeBakey no doubt had a profound influence on the world of medicine. He saved tens of
thousands of lives, created the modern MASH unit, and helped found the National Library of
Medicine. On a personal note, it was Michael DeBakey who pioneered the coronary artery
bypass procedure to prevent heart attacks, which is the reason my own father is with me
today and doing so well.

More recently, Debakey in his 90s developed a ventricular assist device. It is an incredible
machine that is used to give patients with heart failure a little boost while they are waiting for
a transplant. If you ask him where he got so much life inspiration, he will tell you he read a new
book at least once a week, and in his case it was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He read it
cover to cover. While he was a professor and a “maestro,” it turns out he was also an eternal
student.

Dr. Michael DeBakey

Dr. Michael DeBakey

DeBakey died last week, just two months shy of his 100th birthday. Today he goes to his final
resting place, Arlington National Cemetery. If he were still alive, he probably would’ve told
you that as the son of Lebanese immigrants, he learned the value of hard work from his
parents and the value of sewing from his mother. It seems the man never stopped working
and embodied JFK’s famous quote, that we do things “not because they are easy, but
because they are hard.”

A couple years ago, he felt a searing pain rip through his chest. At 97, he was at first sure he
was having a life-ending heart attack, and he didn’t even bother calling 911. A few minutes
later when his heart was still beating, he realized in fact his diagnosis was a thoracic aortic
dissection, which is a tearing of a major blood vessel in the chest. It was, of course, DeBakey
who had first figured out how to repair such damage to the body and it was DeBakey who in
a way supervised his own operation. It was amazing.

I met the man once. I was a medical student and he was the greatest living surgeon. Quite a
contrast. We were in the operating room and I was standing in a corner on a stand so that I
could see. For a baseball fan, it was like going to the World Series – bottom of the ninth, score
tied and bases loaded. It was what I had dreamed of for most of my young life. In the world of
surgery, so full of colorful personalities and enormous ego, everyone agreed DeBakey was the
best. Simply.

I heard about DeBakey’s death with the rest of you last week, and I immediately called my
dad. I shared some of these same stories with him that I am now sharing with you. My dad
said, “Wow.” And, I say thank you Dr. DeBakey, please get some rest finally.

So, how do you find the best surgeon or doctor and what qualities do you look for?

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soundoff (122 Responses)
  1. Linda

    I'm a neuropsychologist and cannot comment in great detail about the contributions of this great man. However, I will say that thanks to Dr. Gupta, we have an opportunity to learn more about those who are truly heroic.

    July 20, 2008 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. franklin zalman,m.d.

    Dr. Debakey and his life are truly a magnificent testimony to what an individual can accomplish no matter what their origins, as it is said "only in America". One important factor is that we all nurture creativity and diversity in our country, and Dr. Debakey is a great example of the results of a philosophy and a society that allows people to achieve their full potential. As a cardiologist, I have been privileged to witness and participate in one of the greatest advances of the twentieth century–the modern way to treat and prevent heart atttacks, and now strokes. Dr. Debakey and his legacy remind us of what has been possible , and gives all of us hope and determination to carry on so that our children and their children also may have the opportunities for an even brighter future.

    July 20, 2008 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jo Good

    Dr Debakey truly did the work God wanted him to do. His talent has touched countless lives, not only in the operating room but also for those of us who care for the patients. We all have a mission in life. Dr. Debakey has inspired me to make sure that I am doing the work that I am suppose to be doing. Dr. Debakey, thank you for lending your name to Hays Medical Center. The Debakey Heart Institute.

    July 20, 2008 at 12:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Vivek Chaudhary

    What an inspiration and moving story. Thanks Dr. Gupta for sharing this.

    July 20, 2008 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Angel Green

    Dr. Gupta, Thank-you for your tribute to an awesome doctor. Not only was he a tremendous influence on the medical field , but was truly a good human being. My husband is alive today because of this mans generousity. When the V.A. said their was no problem with his heart , Dr. Debakey saw him , diagnosed him, and operated two days later. Never charged us a dime . My husband , John was one of the first fifty to have a demand pacemaker, under Dr. Debakey. Our family will be forever grateful to him. John has seen his chrildren grow and is also a Papa now . My prayers go out to his family .He will be truly missed. Thank – you – Dr. DeBakey
    From my heart, Angel

    July 20, 2008 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Linda in Dallas

    I also was saddened to learn of Dr. DeBakey's death. I grew up hearing of him because my father - a now retired thoracic surgeon - attended Baylor Medical School and trained under him while DeBakey was still developing many of the techniques or devices for which he is credited. Dr. DeBakey also played a role in my father's recommendation for his post-medical school surgery training at Yale New Haven Hospital.

    My family's link to Dr. DeBakey became closer, when, in November 1998 my mother underwent bypass surgery in the same hospital where DeBakey practiced; and the successful surgery was performed by one of DeBakey's protoges and one of my father's best friends.

    My mother is about to celebrate her 10th year of life since that surgery; and my parents will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary at the end of August. I thank Dr. DeBakey for his contributions to surgery, and also for the many surgeons who trained with him. Rest in peace, Dr. DeBakey.

    July 20, 2008 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jack

    An Arab immigrant who would not have been allowed into the country under the Bush administration. Long live the memory of Dr. DeBakey and long live the goodness of America and its people.

    July 20, 2008 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Karen

    The best doctors are those who listen and ask questions.

    My health deteriorated badly while doctors at supposedly a top-notch medical center insisted that I could cure my symptoms by doing certain things ... that I was already doing, and they weren't helping.

    My new doctor doesn't have nearly the credentials, but he put an end to several years-long problems simply by asking the right questions to get the full picture, and not just going for the easiest answer.

    July 20, 2008 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Naveed Khan

    I am deeply sadden by the death of Dr. Michael DeBakey.

    July 20, 2008 at 21:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dr THANGIAH

    it is the gift of ulmighty to save the sufferers of heart disease and God send Him to this earth to treat the patients .By rebirth will you please come to my hospital

    July 20, 2008 at 21:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Robert Czimny

    Having worked as a medical photographer at the Methodist Hospital in Houston, I am very proud to say that I was somehow connected to Dr. Michael DeBakey. His transplant team was – and is amazing in the skill they demonstrate. I photographed a number of heart transplants for Methodist – working closely with Dr. James Young and others. I didn't know him personally and only had a few words with him in the OR, but he was an amazing person. His sisters are literary geniuses in the medical field, and having met them and produced medical photography for them, I'm very happy to remember the fantastic work of their brother, Michael E. DeBakey. Both Lois and Selma should be very proud to have a legacy Dr. DeBakey created. I remember Fondren-Brown very well, 6565 Fannin will never be the same.

    July 20, 2008 at 23:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. patty

    I was fortunate to have known and worked with Dr. DeBakey. He was an amazing person who made a superhuman contribution to the field of medicine. He was always thinking and trying to figure out a better way to do almost anything. Dr. DeBakey was a hard taskmaster and drove those around him to outstanding achievements.

    Once upon a time, he even threw an instrument at me for making a mistake. The instrument chunking was something he was known to do from time to time. Afterwards someone told me Dr. DeBakey must really like me. Of course I had to ask why and I was told if he didn't like me, he would have thrown something sharp!

    I will always remember Dr. DeBakey with respect and admiration. He helped make me a better person.

    July 21, 2008 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Panagiotis Balas, MD

    I had the great honour and previlege to be his beloved pupil in the early 60's. As a greatful pupil together with hundreds of his former students from more than 50 countries around the globe founded in 1976 in Athens ,Greece the ' M.E.DeBakey International Cardiovascular Society ". In 1977 I had organised in Athens Greece the first International Congress of this Society with the participation of a thousand pupils and friend of Dr.DeBakey's. The opening ceremony was held at the old Odeon of Hirodus of Atticus at the foot of Acropolis.
    Our great teacher was extremely happy with great emotion being among his pupils in this sacret place .
    The legacy of this great surgeon and humanist will last for ever to illuminate and inspire the the new generations of surgeons for dedication to the patients and for perfection to their endeavour.

    July 21, 2008 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. frogprof

    From James Henderson, MD: "He also allegedly had his own private elevator, and if he used another elevator, would make everyone else exit (I always doubted this particular legend!)."

    Well, as a phlebotomist at Methodist in the '80s, I was forced off an elevator by DeBakey and his harridan nurse, Sylvia, as I was on the way to a stat glucose draw for a patient who was on the way to a diabetic coma. The elevator stopped on the 9th floor [on the way to Fondren 11] and there was Dr. DeBakey with his key stuck in the elevator lock. Sylvia grabbed me by the upper arm in a death grip and said, "You need to get off, honey - Dr. DeBakey wants to go home." So I had to take the stairs the rest of the way up [luckily I was pretty fit in those days] while MD turned the elevator around with his magic key and got to go home.
    Luckily, the PATIENT didn't die - at least not that day.
    I've also had a needle IN a patient's vein when one of MD's minions came into the room and ORDERED me to remove the needle and come back later. Never mind that this meant yet another "stick" for a patient who was going to have, or who had already had, open-heart surgery ... GOD/DEBAKEY was coming down the hall and we mere mortals had to get the hell out of his way. (He didn't get to that patient's room for another ten minutes, by the way - plenty of time for me to have drawn the blood and left, without having to subject the poor patient to yet more physical trauma, however minor that trauma might have been.)
    Yes, DeBakey might have been a genius, but he could have acted like a HUMAN BEING on occasion.

    July 21, 2008 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Rebecca Allen

    My father was one of Dr. DeBakey's truly early bypass patients. I was told it was in the single digits. My father's doctors had given him a year or two to live. Our neighbor (in Houston) was a diagnostician and suggested that my Father see a young doctor name Michael DeBakey with some new ideas. Dr. DeBakey performed a triple bypass on my father and even visited him at home during his recovery. Thanks to Dr. DeBakey we were given twelve years (instead of two) with my Father. Our family appreciates and benefited from his genius and his accomplishments. Our prayers and gratitude go out to his family.

    July 21, 2008 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. M.Reza Beg

    In 1988 at age 49 my career as an international airline captain came to a halt after I had a major heart attack ...in fact my heart stopped beating for a while till it was revived with electric shocks..On recovery I underwent a quadruple bypass surgery by a doctor trained by Dr.De Bakey.
    Three years later, after a rigorous fitness regime, I was among the first few, if not THE first in the world (never did check) to be declared medically fit for flying again after a CABG Op and resumed flying internationally on the Boeing 747-400
    Three years later I skydived from 15000 feet and was the first to be cleared to fly in command. I retired from flying duties in 1999.
    With no more 6-monthly licence medicals to monitor my health, I let myself go and 2 years later paid for my indulgence with a second CABG Op. This time it was for 6 by-passes!!
    One year later I literally bounced back from a 440 ft bungee jump in New Zealand.
    Post-CABG, I have been regularly running, cycling, roller-blade skating and ballroom dancing for hoursand still do so at 70.
    All this was made possible by the great Dr.DeBakey ?
    The world and I owe him....big time!. Thank you Doc. R.I.P.

    July 22, 2008 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Evans

    This story is truly inspiring and captivating. i love it

    July 22, 2008 at 01:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Encarta

    Fascinating indeed! It appears to me that Dr. Debakey had an inner fortitude that was indestructible. He truly was an icon and my heart goes out to his family.

    July 23, 2008 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. frank

    Few people know that Dr DeBakey practiced in New Orleans at the Ochsner Clinic before moving to Houston.

    July 31, 2008 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Каталог статей

    In it something is. I agree with you, thanks for an explanation. As always all ingenious is simple.

    January 29, 2010 at 05:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. evajackson012

    Having surgery on any part of the body is a serious matter. Choosing a qualified surgeon to perform the necessary surgery is crucial, especially when it comes to orthopedic surgery that involves mobility.See more at- Houston Orthopedic Surgeons

    March 20, 2016 at 02:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.