Texas Times: A Texan who helped change the world

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn | Oct 11, 2007

Later this month, President Bush will present a Congressional Gold Medal, the legislative branch's highest civilian award, to Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey of Houston. I was proud to join Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and the Texas delegation in sponsoring this latest honor for our state's most famous medical doctor.

Dr. DeBakey, now 99 years old, is the son of Lebanese immigrants. He was born and educated in Louisiana, but he has been a Texan for nearly 60 years. His accomplishments as a researcher, surgeon, and teacher have impacted the entire world, and may never be duplicated.

As Dr. DeBakey once said: "I take pride in the outstanding surgeons I've trained who have returned to their homes throughout the world to provide the best available health care for their patients."

He is especially recognized for his revolutionary contributions to cardiovascular medicine. Two important inventions were the roller pump-an essential component of the heart-lung machine-and the DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device, an apparatus implanted into the heart to increase blood flow. He also designed countless medical devices now considered basic tools, such as specialty clamps, and he wrote the book on numerous surgical procedures that have become standard practice in the operating room.

Dr. DeBakey was an innovator from the start of his medical career. During World War II, he helped develop the concept of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) units, which saved thousands of lives during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He later helped create a medical and surgical center system for the Veterans Administration to improve care for returning service personnel.

But he will always be best known as a pioneer in cardiovascular surgery. He became head of surgery at the Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston in 1948, and helped lead the Texas Medical Center to the position of international prominence it enjoys today.

He was one of the first surgeons to undertake coronary artery bypass surgery. He was the first to successfully perform a carotid endarterectomy. His medical students, inspired by his example, have made countless additional breakthroughs.

Dr. DeBakey has been honored by a multitude of organizations, governments and medical institutions. He has received the Library of Congress Living Legends Award, the American Heart Association Gold Heart Award, the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to name a few.

In 1996, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had a heart attack during his re-election campaign. His doctors told him he could not survive surgery. But Yeltsin called in Dr. DeBakey for a consultation-and later asked him to oversee his coronary bypass, which proved successful. It was a tacit acknowledgment of U.S. medical leadership and Dr. DeBakey's international reputation.

Dr. DeBakey's worldwide fame has even translated into a few humorous medical anecdotes. It seems that an auto mechanic, working on a car, good-naturedly compared his job to DeBakey's: "I also take valves out, grind them and put in new parts. So how come you get the big bucks?"

According to the tale, Dr. DeBakey quietly replied, "Yes, but I do it with the engine running."

On the last day of 2005, a sharp pain in his upper torso told Dr. DeBakey he was suffering an aortic aneurysm-the very condition that his research had addressed years before. Initially, Dr. DeBakey chose to wait out the situation in hopes that it would heal itself.

It didn't. Houston's Methodist Hospital later approved an operation. After a seven-hour surgery and nine months of touch-and-go recuperation, Dr. DeBakey went back to work.

Over the years, as he helped establish Houston as an internationally known center of medical excellence, Dr. DeBakey always remembered the broader humanitarian aspects of his work. He dedicated countless hours to advising developing nations, and training their doctors and medical authorities to establish stronger and more efficient health care systems.

Dr. Michael DeBakey has helped millions of people to live longer and more productive lives. He is a Texan who has helped change the world.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee. Cornyn served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice and Bexar County District Judge. For Sen. Cornyn's previous Texas Times columns: http://cornyn.senate.gov/column.

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