July 14 , 2008

Over the weekend we lost one of the most distinguished alumni in the history of Tulane University. Dr. Michael DeBakey, who would have been 100 years old in September, passed away Friday night at Methodist Hospital in Houston.

Shock seems an odd word to use when you receive such news concerning someone so advanced in years. But for such an extraordinary man, who was responsible for so many advances, who counted among his patients Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Jordan's King Hussein, who was performing heart surgery into his 90s and who, just a few months ago, received the Congressional Gold Medal, shock is, for me, an appropriate emotion. Gratitude for a life well-lived and the honor of having known Dr. DeBakey is another.

I had the great pleasure of first meeting Dr. DeBakey about 10 years ago. I remember that initial meeting like it was yesterday. We met in his Houston office and I was immediately impressed by his personal warmth, genius and physical presence (at 90 no less). He regaled me with life stories that were inspirational, humorous and heart warming. We became immediate friends and saw each other about once a year for each of the last 10 years. I will forever remember him as a giant among men and a person who made a profound difference in the lives of so many.

Dr. DeBakey's was a life filled with "firsts." A native of Lake Charles, La., Dr. DeBakey earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Tulane University and, from 1937 to 1948, was a faculty member of our School of Medicine's Department of Surgery. While still a 23 year-old medical student at Tulane, Dr. DeBakey invented a pump for blood transfusions that was used in the first successful open-heart operation.

By World War II, Dr. DeBakey had achieved a national reputation as an authority on vascular disease and had a promising career as a surgeon and teacher. However, he put this career on hold and volunteered for military service, joining the Surgeon General's staff and rising to the rank of colonel and chief of the Surgical Consultants Division. It was here that Dr. DeBakey's recommendations led to the development of MASH units responsible for saving the lives of so many of our military.

After the war, Dr. DeBakey's proposal to create specialized medical centers to treat wounded veterans evolved into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center System. In 1948, Dr. DeBakey joined the Baylor University College of Medicine, where he developed the first surgical residency program in the city of Houston. In 1953, DeBakey performed the first successful procedures to treat patients who suffered stroke-causing aneurysms and later developed a series of innovative surgical techniques for the treatment of aneurysms.

In 1964, Dr. DeBakey performed the first successful coronary bypass operation and was named chairman of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke by President Lyndon Johnson. Two years later, Dr. DeBakey was the first to successfully use a partial artificial heart for a patient who could not be weaned from a heart-lung machine following open-heart surgery.

In 1968, Dr. DeBakey supervised the first successful multi-organ transplant, in which a heart, both kidneys and lung were transplanted from a single donor into four separate recipients. Dr. DeBakey also pioneered the field of telemedicine with the first demonstration of open-heart surgery transmitted overseas by satellite.

In 1969, President Johnson honored Dr. DeBakey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction and in 1985 President Ronald Reagan conferred on him the National Medal of Science. Dr. DeBakey also worked with NASA engineers, refining existing technology to create the DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device, which may eliminate the need for heart transplantation in some patients.

Believe it or not, this is just a partial list of Dr. DeBakey's achievements and accomplishments. The countless lives he touched and saved during both his time on earth and for generations to come, offer the most eloquent testimony to his greatness. These lives include the hundreds of Tulane medical students and residents Dr. DeBakey welcomed to Baylor College of Medicine, which gave our medical students a place to continue their education as Tulane recovered from Katrina.

I was honored to know Dr. DeBakey personally and to count him as one of Tulane's most distinguished alumni. We were fortunate to have him as part of our community and our memories of his greatness and humanity will always serve as an inspiration for a life worth living.


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