Pioneering surgeons gave cardio care a boost
Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 600,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But thanks to decades of advances in cardiovascular care, especially through surgical interventions, survival rates and quality of life have improved significantly for those suffering from cardiac conditions.
One of the true pioneers in cardiovascular surgery was Dr. Michael DeBakey, who enjoyed a career of invention and clinical innovation that lasted seven decades, the vast majority at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital, Baylor's main teaching facility.
Over the years, his surgical breakthroughs came fast and furious, especially in the 1950s and '60s, including development of the Dacron graft to repair damaged blood vessels. He performed the first carotid endarterectomy, which involved removing a blockage in the main artery of the neck that supplies blood to the brain, advancing the treatment of stroke. In 1964, he performed the first successful coronary bypass procedure. Just two years later, he was the first to successfully use a partial artificial heart to treat a patient who could not be weaned from a heart-lung machine after open-heart surgery. He would continue to work on perfecting the artificial heart.
As his accomplishments grew, so did his reputation. He treated numerous presidents, celebrities and heads of state, including the Duke of Windsor in the mid-1960s. When later asked by a reporter why he traveled all the way to Texas to be treated by DeBakey, the dignitary said, “Because he is the maestro.”
Another equally pioneering heart surgeon, Dr. Denton Cooley, was a protege of DeBakey, who recruited him to Baylor. But the partnership wouldn't last.
Cooley is credited with numerous cardiovascular inventions and groundbreaking procedures. The most famous of his feats is being the first to implant a totally artificial heart in a patient in 1969. Cooley had implanted the device without DeBakey's authorization or even his knowledge. Up to that point, the device that DeBakey and colleagues had been designing was still experimental and had only been tested in animals.
Thus started a 40-year feud.
Cooley had already begun to practice at nearby St. Luke's Episcopal Medical Center, where he would establish the Texas Heart Institute. He was a prolific clinician who at the peak of his career was known as the busiest heart surgeon in America, using assembly-line techniques to treat as many patients as possible.
Cooley and DeBakey reconciled in 2007, initiated by Cooley. As he told the New York Times, “Why carry on this so-called animosity to our graves?”
DeBakey, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, died in 2008 just two months shy of his 100th birthday. Cooley, inducted into the Hall in 2013, passed away in 2016 at age 96.