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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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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.

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