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

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 (182 Responses)
  1. Kim

    In 1970, I was a very sick 1-year-old. I had been diagnosed as having a heart defect. I was taken to Houston to Texas Children's Hospital where a surgeon by the name of Dr. Denton Cooley performed what is known as a division and ligation of the right aortic arch. Dr. Cooley was trained by a Dr. Michael DeBakey. If not for him teaching Dr. Cooley about this procedure involving the aorta, I would not be here today.

    So, I say, God Speed Dr. DeBakey. Thank you for all you did for humanity.

    July 18, 2008 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Joy, CA

    I read a book called "Hearts" which was about Dr.Michael DeBakey and his protege, Dr.Denton Cooley. My father encouraged me to read it when I wasn't too much into reading, and I read the entire book and it was very inspiring. I hope I am inspired to read a book at least once a month, but Dr.Debakey's inspiration of once-a-week reading a book is a tough call on me. But I hope to reach that goal one day. My heart to his.

    May Dr.DeBakey's soul rest in peace.

    A fan.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Margaret

    RIP dear old Friend!!!

    July 18, 2008 at 14:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Daniyal Siddiqui

    Best Surgeon....Hands down. And he will be sorely missed

    July 18, 2008 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mohammed Z

    As a Lebanese American I am very proud of Dr. Debakey. Lebanons Government last week honored Dr. Debakey with the highest civilian award. Rest In Peace.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. sam

    Great commentary! I'm from Houston, Tx and we're all very sad down here. He was an iconic figure in this city, but he will definiely be remembered and thankfully we showed him much appreciation before he was gone.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. john mccloskey

    Dr. Gupta, Thank You for making me aware of this great man !!! I've now a new hero to add to my regrettably short list.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Mike Fitzgerald

    Dr. DeBakey perfomed my fathers triple bypass back in the mid-seventies when there were only three surgeons in the world doing the procedure. The impact it had on my childhood was immeasureable. My father went from invalid, with nearly constant, frightening debilitating angina, to a functioning person again. He lived to 79 years with good quality of life. I am not a blogger but I am compelled to share that Dr. DeBakey has always had my deepest respect and gratitude and I share your sentiment to him. Rest well, Sir.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Wendy

    In 1978, when I was 6, Dr. DeBakey flew in from Texas to New Jersey, to Fort Dix airport, during a BLIZZARD, and the military plowed the road and he came to Deborah Heart and Lung Hospital and "fixed" my heart, with my own heart muscle tissue – 1st time ever doing it that way!!! Thank you Dr. DeBakey for my life as I now have 2 daughters of my own to live for!

    July 18, 2008 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. J. M. Miles, MD

    I am a physician, and my father (a surgeon) knew DeBakey. I thank Dr. Gupta for his beautifully wirtten piece. Unlike much of the tabloid news that is inflicted on us, this is a story that deserves to be displayed prominently on CNN's front page.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ryan

    You hit the nail right on the head Dr. Gupta – great comments about a legend.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sheelagh Schano

    What a moving tribute to and synopsis of a wonderful man of sciende and medicine. Thank you, Dr. Gupta for your words of honor.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Susan Miller

    If it weren't for coronary bypass surgery, my 81 year old father might have died at 55 (when he had to have a quadruple bypass). Instead he's seeing his 8 grandchildren grow up and he and my mother have had the gift of 26+ years together and will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in September. Thank you Dr. DeBakey for making that possible.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. DeePee

    1996 CABG3X – Thanks Dr. DeBakey!

    July 18, 2008 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jeffrey Sartin MD

    The most heroic doctor I ever met was Dr. Thor Sundt, a neurosurgeon who specialized in cerebrovascular surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He was well known for operating on cases almost everyone else thought inoperable, usually with surprisingly effective results.

    At the height of his career and at a relatively young age he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable bone cancer. For the next decade or so he continued to operate, even though he had multipe spinal compression fractures which led to constant pain, and had to wear a bulky back brace to prevent catastrophic injury to his spinal cord. Often during a long case he would lie down on a cot in the O.R. while his assistants did part of the procedure, until his skills were needed during a critical moment.

    He died at the relatively young age of 62 with many accomplishments to his name and numerous patients who owed him their lives and health. All of us who worked or trained at Mayo during his career were inspired by the bald former Marine with the ramrod straight bearing who was kind to patients and respectful of residents and colleagues, and who never gave up even when faced with adversity.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Anu

    What an inspirational story! Doctors like this don't come by easy...the dedication Dr.DeBakey had sounds amazing. With a lifetime of contributions to the world of medicine, he deserves a peaceful passing and a passageway to eternal comfort. God bless his family.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Pushpanand

    Truly a legend and a pioneer.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Michael

    Living in Houston as a small child, I grew up watching the moon launches and hearing the news about the acheivements of this great man. I'm glad that was alive to see it.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. mike

    as a current surgical resident, i too was saddened by Dr. DeBakey's passing last week...truly a legend. I never had the honor to meet him personally, but feel that I have been touched by him directly on a daily basis when I use some the surgical instruments that he pioneered in my own OR (some even named after him).

    thank you Dr. Gupta for this nice little article in remembrance of him. i am surprised that his passing did not make more news...in the medical world, he was a living legend, everyone knew of him across the world. his work ethic, ingenuity, and eternal inquisitiveness is an incredible inspiration.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Karen

    As a medical librarian I was glad to see mention of Dr. DeBakey's efforts to help the nation's medical libraries in the preceding article. I work in what is known as a Regional Medical Library, and DeBakey, was a major factor in establishing this valuable resource in this country.
    To read more about Dr. DeBakey's work for medical libraries, please visit the National Library of Medicine's web site.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Derek

    Thanks for sharing. We don't hear neough about the amazing things peope do which lead to the improvement of our every day lives.

    July 18, 2008 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. David

    I appreciated the thoughtful article by Dr. Gupta. I too trained at Baylor College of Medicine and had the honor of meeting with Dr. DeBakey on several occasions when I was a medical student. We talked about how he developed his LVAD and some of the science involved in the design or discussed his recent travels to Russia to aid in the coronary bypass-surgery for Boris Yeltsin. He inspired an entire generation of physicians and scientists to devote their lives and energy to improve the lives of others. He will be missed, but he has left an important challenge to the rest of us to continue his legacy.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Luis

    Wow, Is it me or we need to revisit our priorities as a media oriented society. This man single-handedly created a way to save thousands of lives yet his death passes almost unnoticed. On the other hand we have a rampant craze about a custody settlement between two people whose contribution to society is not the one you want your 7 year old to hear about. Interesting, huh?

    July 18, 2008 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. James Henderson, MD

    I was a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in 1994-98. During our surgical rotation we got to meet with Dr. DeBakey in groups of 4 or 5 for about 1/2 hour. His office was on a top floor of Methodist Hospital and was basically an enormous suite. The walls were adorned with life size portraits of him with every president since Eisenhower. We sat at an enormous ornate dark wooden table with a large glass bottle with a ship in it. I recall some answers to our questions. One of us asked "What is your biggest regret." His answer "I wasted too much time." Asked if he had any hobbies, he answered "Reading orthopedic journals and exercising." I also recall stories of self-taught musical prowess at Tulane and that he encouraged us to always work hard.

    Our classes were in the DeBakey building, where there was a giant portrait of him. Our first day of classes we all posed prostrate before he legend's portrait. Stories abounded of his legend. Among the most famous was his infamous feud with Dr. Denton Cooley, a rival surgeon associated with UT Houston Medical School literally across the street from us. 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!) He is also rumored to have fired residents on the spot for what others would generally view as minor infractions, and to run a brutal ship. One legend that I can affirm is the man had huge hands. While sitting at the table with him I observed his fingers to be literally twice as long as mine.

    James Henderson, MD
    Baylor College of Medicine class of 1998

    July 18, 2008 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. John Bershof, MD

    I appreciate Dr. Gupta's comments about Dr. DeBakey, a legend upon whose shoulders many of us stand. Yet, Dr. Gupta should know that the coronary artery bypass graft or CABG, for which DeBakey helped pioneer, does not, in fact, except for one type of coronary artery disease left main stem), prevent heart attacks or allow patients to live longer. Most studies suggest that the CABG procedure mostly decreases the pain of angina but does not prolong life or prevent heart attacks. It is important for physicians, such as Dr. Gupta, not to propagate medical myths.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Aliya

    This has been a few days of great loss. Not only did we lose Dr.DeBakey, but also Dr.Omayya. A Rhodes scholar, and a great nuerosurgeon who, like many other geniuses of our time, changed the lives of many.
    He created the Omayya reservoir that for the first time allowed delivery of chemotherapeutic agents directly into the brain, helped create the center for injury prevention, and provided a prototype for many devices that saved countless people. He also delighted his patients and their families with his operatic performances.
    These men and their legacies are great reminders of how America became the great country that it is through it's immigrants and their children.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Neil Leeser

    I can tell you what to look for. I don't have to look very far, my father is a physician and has cared for people all his life. Dr. Robert L. Leeser, MD. He hasbeen a dedicated lifelong, familay practice physican for the last 45 years.

    He has never pioneered a life saving preocedure like Dr. DeBakey, but he has lived a life dedicate to caring for and improving the health of people in his community. I have never met anyone more respected by his fellow collegues, patients and people where he lives.

    A quality physician is someone who really cares. A genuine interest in you -the patient or friend, either emotionally or physically. Of couse they should be competent, knowledgeable, and have strong work ethic. But a physician who takes an overall interest in how you really feel is a special person, an irreplaceable person, truely a blessing to Humankind.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Dan Perez

    I am a medical student in San Francisco.. and for the past several says every surgeon I talk to has expressed their shock at not only De Bakey's death, but his enormous accomplishments. As a young aspiring surgeon, I have grown up in a different era, one that - regrettably– does not yet fully appreciate his contributions to medicine. But everyday in the operating room, when we use the DeBakey cauterizer thousands of people are treated in his name.
    Dan Perez, MS3
    UC San Francisco

    July 18, 2008 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. amie

    what a great man and inspiration! truly an innovator and medical genius. thanks and rest in peace!

    July 18, 2008 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Will

    I am a veterinary student, and even though he was a doctor for humans, DeBakey's inventions, procedures, and legend made their way into the very halls that I study in now. You know you're a rock star when a pair of forceps that surgeons use every day is named after you; DeBakey was just such a star. Although I never had the chance to meet him, he's a guiding light for me in my own pursuits.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. terrie

    This was truly and outstanding man and yes we need to hear more things about the GOOD people in this world.
    My father in-law had his first heart attack at age 50, had a triple bypass

    July 18, 2008 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. deme

    I remember hearing about Dr. Debakey at an early start in my career, I wanted to one day work with the GREAT!!!
    If it weren't for Dr. Debakey I wouldn't have the great career that I have now as an open heart surgical technician. Thank you for your innovation and your brilliance! I just did a heart transplant last Sunday and informed the surgeons of Dr. Debakey's passing and then the stories of this great man and of course the rivalry with Dr. Cooley. May he rest in peace.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. D Feldman, MD

    Dr. DeBakey, was unmistakeably one of the greatest surgeons out there. My uncle is a Cardiac Surgeon and when you are standing in the OR and you hear 'pass me the DeBakey clamp' you know he was no ordinary physician. Whether CABG saves lives or not is a topic for Surgical Grand Rounds, not CNN(in my humble opinion). I wish every generation of physicians could boast someone like DeBakey.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. terrie

    This man was outstanding, yes we definately need to hear more about the GOOD people of this world. I think everyone of us has in one way or another been touched by this man. My father in-law had his 1st heart attack at age 50. He had a triple bypass and lived to 74.
    His dad not having access to such wonderful healthcare passed from a heart attack at age 42.
    This man has touched many peoples lives..... in a good way.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Mickie

    I too have had the benefit of bypass surgery, but in the femoral artery of my leg. That was six years ago and my surgeon was phenominal. I think we need to show more media recognition to not only the doctors but all of the medical staff and maybe our kids would aspire to be like them. I thank Dr. DeBakey and all of the wonderful medical personnel who have kept me (age 64) in great health and even saved me at times from close calls with death.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Patricia

    If not for Dr. DeBakey, I probably would have lost my father 14 years ago. He had to have 6 bypasses. Thanks to Dr. DeBakey's pioneering efforts, my dad's surgery was successful. He and my mom are getting ready to celebrate their 64th (yes 64th) wedding anniversary. RIP, Dr. DeBakey!

    July 18, 2008 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Jeannie

    As the mom of a 4-year old with many complicated heart defects-I also wanted to express my gratitude for such an amazing man. He lead the way for so many life-saving procedures.
    We owe so much for the self-less doctors that have spent their lives helping all of us!!!

    July 18, 2008 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Karen Baker

    God bless Dr. De Bakey! Amazing what one individual can accomplish with dedication.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. James Tau

    Thank you for remembering Dr. DeBakey; and speaking as an outsider who's not in the medicine field, I find his achievements, accolades, and inventions to be the most influential which has literally affected thousands of lives directly, and countless more indirectly. However, it saddens me that Tony Snow's death – as tragic as it is – receives far more spotlight in the media.

    And I work in the media.

    July 18, 2008 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Mark

    In today's world, we look for role models and individuals to emulate, Dr. deBakey was such a man. To his family, friends, and many admirers worldwide, we honor his great works and humanity. The United States was privileged to have this shining light in the medical community for nearly a century. Rest well, your many labors done on this earth.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. myu

    I never knew of this doctor but sure glad to learn about him now.Also nice to see the gratitude from the people that are helped directly by Dr.Debakey.

    but alas, my father died of cancer and there was not a single doctor in the whole world that offered a little hope because the case was complex.Wish there would be one doctor in oncology dept, like Dr.Debakey

    July 18, 2008 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Cathyn

    When I was 6, in 1972, it was discovered that I had a Coarctation of my aorta. I can't remember the surgeon's name, but I was operated on in the Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital using a technique Dr. De Bakey developed. I am alive today because of his amazing work.

    Thank you, Doctor.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. M Moeller

    I remember as a medical student learning to use the DeBakey pick ups during surgery...
    Years later I was walking for my interview to become a surgery resident, and I remember seen Dr DeBakey's name decorating a hallway at Baylor Medical center.
    I didn't get to meet him in person, but I felt a a tremendous satisfaction that I walked the same hallway sas somebody I admired so much and who has inspired several generations of surgeons.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Roger D. Smith, MD

    The comments Dr. Henderson made were, in fact, based on truth. As great a man as Dr. DeBakey was, he was also a petty tyrant in many ways. This seems to be more acceptable among towering scientists, doctors, or researchers than it would be among towering politicans or educators. I am exceedingly grateful for the many advances Dr. DeBakey pioneered, but I know from personal experience that the great years of accomplishment by the two competing teams in Houston could have been even greater had "cooperation" been as important as "recognition". I must wonder how many present day surgeons who as residents were exposed to Michael DeBakey's tyrannical OR style have bent over backwards, as I have, to be gracious and generous to *all* members of the surgical team?

    July 18, 2008 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Nancy in Texas

    Five weeks ago at Houston's Methodist Hopsital, Dr. Debakey's protege and colleague, Dr. Lawrie, performed a triple bypass on my husband. Thank you. Thank you, Thank you.

    While in hospital, we asked if Dr. DeBakey eer came around. The staff told us that he and his scooter could be seen prowling the halls checking on 'his people.' We need more like him and his staff.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Cynhia Duchenois, RN

    I am a new RN working in the Cardiac Special Care Unit at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. Everyday, our hospital performs surgery that once was unheard of and unimaginable...until pioneers like Michael DeBakey imagined them and tried them and perfected them. Without visionaries like him, hundreds and thousands of people who are living fulfilling lives today would be dead. Just like Curie and Salk, visionary doctors such as DeBakey see closed doors as challenges to be overcome. We owe so much to him and others like him. What better way to thank him than to improve our own personal health and strive to encourage healthy living in others. Thank you for reminding us all of someone who paved the way for what we at St. Thomas and other heart hospitals do every day...save and improve lives.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. roseanna whiteside

    When my uncle, the late Judge Frank Johnson Jr, was nominated for FBI director by President Jimmy Carter , he had to go for a complete physical. His doctor in Montgomery found an abdominal aortic anyurism. he asked his dr who the best was for the surgery and without hesitation he said Dr. DeBakey so with in 48 hours my uncle was in the operating room with Dr DeBakey. He came through with flying colors and became life long friends with the good Doctor. He had to turn down the FBI because recuperation was going to take several months but he often said the nomination and Dr DeBakey saved his life. He was wonderful!! Roseanna

    July 18, 2008 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. John

    While the monumental accomplishments of Dr. DeBakey are a legion and his contributions to cardiac surgery numerous, he was not the man who pioneered the coronary artery bypass technique. That distinction belongs to Dr. Rene Favolaro of Argentina. His pioneering work was done at the Cleveland Clinic an quickly adopted by the Baylor team and cardiac surgeons around the world to the great benefit of mankind. Dr. Debakey was a precise surgeon and I am confident would want his accomplishments remembered precisely.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Betty

    I look for a doctor who will take the time to listen to questions and answer them. I look for a doctor who doesn't seem rushed - who doesn't have his hand on the doorknob as I'm trying to get an answer to a question or an explanation of procedure. And, I want a doctor who explains my options - ALL of my options when I'm faced with a decision on my medical care. I also want a doctor who will stand up and fight when the insurance company rejects a medication or a test that he feels is medically necessary.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Julie

    Dr, Gupta,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to honor Dr. DeBakey. I was reading the commentary from one, of what I imagine was thousands of students taught by Dr. DeBakey. He mentioned the myths told about him. I just wanted to clarify some of those myths.

    It is true that he had his own elevator and it is true that if he needed the elevator, “an assistant” (a rather large formidable man who I would imagine had been a bodyguard at another time in his life) would come and clear the elevator by saying. “Dr. Debakey needs this elevator”. I know this because I was on one the elevator once. Some people were shocked they had to get off. I remember telling one of the other elevator riders who he was, what he did and feeling this incredible pride to work in the same institution he represented. I understood that his time was more valuable than mine because he was saving lives and teaching others to do so as well. It is not only his accomplishments that are so important, but how many students and faculty he may have inspired to future greatness. I suspect many of them will become the Medical Leaders of the future.

    July 18, 2008 at 16:28 | 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.