By Mike Pound
When Dr. Michael DeBakey passed away over the weekend, the news was treated with one of those collective, “Oh, by the way” attitudes by many folks in the national media.
In one way that’s understandable. After all, DeBakey was 99 years old, but the fact of the matter is it is no exaggeration to say there are hundreds of thousands of folks walking around today who wouldn’t be walking around had it not been for DeBakey.
When it comes to the world of cardiovascular surgery, DeBakey was a giant. In baseball terms DeBakey was Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter and Abner Doubleday rolled into one.
See, DeBakey wasn’t just a great — some say the best — cardiovascular surgeon in the world, he also practically invented the process.
“Dr. DeBakey was a titan in a field of pioneers,” Dr. Joseph Graham said this week.
He should know. In 1981, Graham and Dr. Mitch Stinnett opened the Heart and Vascular Care Center at St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Both men were fresh off DeBakey’s grueling residency program.
But Graham’s ties to DeBakey can be traced back to his high-school days when DeBakey offered him a summer job working in his lab in Houston. He would continue to work for DeBakey through college. After medical school and formal surgical residency training, Graham signed on as a resident with DeBakey. At the time, a residency with DeBakey was considered one of the most prestigious and rigorous posts in medicine. Think of playing basketball for Bobby Knight in the 1980s. That’s what it was like to be a resident for DeBakey.
“You would walk into the hospital on your first day and sign in. You wouldn’t walk out for three months,” Graham said.
That three-month immersion in everything relating to cardiovascular surgery was followed by a two-month immersion. It was a grueling, yet rewarding experience, Graham said. DeBakey was totally dedicated to his profession and his patients and expected the surgeons who studied under him to be equally dedicated.
“You had to be like him or he didn’t want anything to do with you. There were no excuses. People who are sick don’t want to hear excuses,” he said.
Before DeBakey and the development of his many groundbreaking surgical techniques, heart disease was largely a death sentence. But DeBakey and — Graham says DeBakey would be quick to point out — other pioneering surgeons changed that.
Starting in the 1950s, DeBakey began performing what at the time were unheard of medical techniques. He was the first to perform replacements of arterial aneurysms and obstructions. He pioneered coronary artery bypass surgery. As a young man he invented a roller pump that later became the key component of the heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery possible.
But it wasn’t just the techniques that DeBakey pioneered. For every surgical innovation there needed to be corresponding technical advancements. DeBakey invented the tools he needed to perform the groundbreaking surgeries. Today, operating rooms across the country are stocked with hundreds of clamps, stints and other devices that were invented, designed or improved by DeBakey.
DeBakey also was instrumental in developing Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) for the military.
But for all of DeBakey’s surgical brilliance, for all of his technological advancements, Graham thinks DeBakey will be remembered more for his teaching skill than anything else. Right now, in hospitals all around the world, there are hundreds if not thousands of surgeons who claim a link to DeBakey.
Joplin alone has three cardiovascular surgeons and one general surgeon who studied under DeBakey.
They are Graham, Stinnett (who recently retired as a surgeon), Steve Meyers at St. John’s and Brock Carney with Freeman Health System.
“I think a legacy is who you leave behind, those you have trained,” Graham said.
It’s also what those people you have trained have gone on to do. And the people DeBakey trained have saved a lot of lives.
That’s a pretty good legacy.
By Mike Pound