Date: July 1st, 2008
In April 2008, the renowned surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., joined a very exclusive society. Under the imposing dome of the Capitol Rotunda, President Bush presented DeBakey with the nation’s highest civilian honor—the Congressional Gold Medal—whose past recipients include George Washington, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and Jonas Salk. DeBakey, who will be 100 years old on September 7, 2008, was characteristically articulate and forward-thinking in his acceptance remarks, urging his audience to pursue health care reform.
DeBakey’s presence at the ceremony represented professional triumph in the most personal of ways. For in 2006, he became the oldest survivor of an operation that he himself devised to repair an aortic dissection, and proved that a healthy man of 97 can undergo this risky and difficult procedure. Such a twist of fate is not surprising when one takes stock of DeBakey’s contributions to medicine: over a long and extraordinarily productive life, he revolutionized not only heart surgery, but also many aspects of the nation’s health care.
While still in medical school at the age of 23, DeBakey invented a blood pump that became an essential component of heart-lung machines. He is the father of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) units which bring surgical care close to the battlefield. He helped establish the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care system, the National Library of Medicine, and the field of surgery for strokes. He is internationally acclaimed for his contributions to the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, including arterial bypass operations, the inventions of Dacron arteries, artificial hearts, heart pumps, and heart transplants. He invented many new operations, devices, and more than 50 surgical instruments for the improvement of patient care. The New York Times called him “one of the most influential heart surgeons in history.”
What motivates him? DeBakey consistently credits his parents, whom he calls “my first and lasting heroes,” as his source of inspiration. The son of Lebanese immigrants, DeBakey recalls that “the most important thing our parents thought we should have was a good education.” His parents urged their children to take one book out of the library each week and to read it. “I came home one day and said I found a very good book but that I couldn’t borrow it. My father asked what it was, and I told him it was called the Encyclopedia Britannica. He promptly bought us a set.” DeBakey and his siblings read the entire encyclopedia by the time they went to college. He also credits his parents with the lesson of compassion.
DeBakey carried on his family’s belief in education by being a teacher as well as a physician, and the generations of surgeons he trained are perhaps one of his greatest legacies. Within five years of graduating from medical school, he joined the faculty of Tulane Medical School. In 1948 he became the chairman of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where today he is chancellor emeritus. Recognizing the need to attract young people to health professions early in life, DeBakey was also a driving force in the establishment of Houston’s High School for Health Professions, which has grown from an enrollment of 45 to more than 720 of the city’s most promising secondary school students.
In appreciation of his contributions, the Trustees of Baylor College of Medicine built and established the Michael E. DeBakey Center for Biomedical Education and Research in 1978. Today numerous other heart institutes, professorships, and awards across the nation also bear DeBakey’s name.
To the amazement of his colleagues and patients, DeBakey continued to practice medicine into an age well after most others have retired. He has operated on more than 60,000 patients in Houston alone. His patients have included the poor and unknown, as well as the rich and famous. When DeBakey was 86, he and a team of American cardiothoracic surgeons supervised quintuple bypass surgery on Russian President Boris Yeltsin by Russian surgeons.
The Congressional Gold Medal is struck by the U.S. Mint with a design unique to each recipient: DeBakey’s features an image of him in surgical scrubs, with his words: “The pursuit of excellence has been my objective in life.”
But what no medal could adequately capture is the essence of the man himself. He is soft-spoken and courtly in demeanor, gracious in acknowledging his gratitude for the gifts he says he has received as a citizen of the United States. To watch him lecture about poetry to medical students at Baylor—you can do so at the College of Medicine’s web site—is to understand the humanity behind the scientist, the artist in the physician.
U.S. Rep. Al Green (D-TX), who with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) led efforts to get DeBakey’s medal legislation through Congress, said that DeBakey proves “one person cannot only have an impact on the world, but one person can change the world for the good of all.” DeBakey’s exemplary life proves the power of knowledge in service to the greater good.