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Volume 46, Number 1January/February 1995

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The Doctor Doesn't Miss a Beat

Written by Arthur Clark

Is Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, the "Texas Tornado" of medicine, slowing down at age 86?

Far from it, says the Arab-American surgeon, who pioneered the techniques now commonly used to prevent strokes and treat aneurysms, and was the leader in the field of heart-bypass surgery. Instead, the dynamic doctor is still working at a dizzying pace at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, inside the operating room and out. Lately, he's even linked up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to blaze new trails in medicine.

With the help of a NASA engineer on whom he performed a heart-transplant operation a decade ago, DeBakey enlisted the aid of NASA hydraulics specialists to help develop the world's first artificial heart designed for permanent implantation into humans. DeBakey thinks the small, battery-powered pump will be ready to use by 1999, allowing thousands of people with disabling heart problems to return to normal lives.

Not only that, but he's joined NASA in a "telemedicine" project that could soon make planet's top medical resources available almost anywhere on the globe.

He's also continuing his long quest to find the root cause of atherosclerosis, or blockage of the arteries. It accounts for most cardiovascular disease—which is the leading cause of death in the United States and Canada, claiming more than a million lives each year in those countries, and millions more around the world.

DeBakey's colleagues once nicknamed him "The Texas Tornado" for his 20-hour days, when he sometimes spent 14 hours at a stretch in the operating room. Today he admits that the "balance" of his labor has shifted more and more from surgery toward research and writing in recent years. But his pace remains unchanged.

"I'm still consumed by my work," he says in his office at the Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. "Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning for lack of time."

The walls of his office and of the hallway outside are covered with awards, photographs and honorary degrees from around the world. He's shown with Lyndon Johnson, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with Ronald Reagan receiving the National Medal of Science, and with former President George Bush and the late President Turgut Özal of Turkey. There is a picture of former Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop with DeBakey, with a dedication calling DeBakey "a role model for us all."

Although he resigned as chairman of the department of surgery at Baylor's College of Medicine in 1993, DeBakey remains its chancellor and most distinguished professor of surgery. He still takes part in complicated surgery at Baylor-affiliated Methodist Hospital, and he continues a heavy correspondence with his former patients and their doctors. He still travels widely—Russia, Finland and Florida were all on his schedule in one month last summer—to lecture and to follow up on cardiovascular programs he's helped establish.

The surgeon who has achieved so much in six decades of work is the son of Lebanese immigrants. DeBakey's father was a pharmacist and entrepreneur in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who owned drugstores, farms and real estate. DeBakey credits his parents with instilling in him the self-discipline and social responsibility that are the hallmarks of his career.

"We weren't spoiled, but we never went without," says DeBakey. His father's business success even enabled the family to return to Lebanon to visit relatives in the Marjayoun area when DeBakey was 12. Caring professions figure prominently in his family tree: "There were quite a number of doctors on my father's side," he notes, and his maternal grandfather was a Greek Orthodox priest.

Recently, DeBakey has been reaching back to his roots. Through the Task Force on the Reconstruction of Lebanon he's been involved in the early discussions on developing a new medical school in the country, possibly in Byblos.

As the eldest of five children, DeBakey says he was expected to set the example for his siblings. He obviously succeeded: Four DeBakey siblings appear in Who's Who in America, in science or science-related fields.

"The thrust [in the family] was that we think and learn for ourselves," he says.

Part of the children's routine was to read a book a week in addition to their normal schoolwork. On one trip to the library, DeBakey remembers, he discovered the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but wasn't allowed to check it out.

"So my father got a set for all of us, and by the time we went to college we had all read the entire encyclopedia," he says.

His parents' influence wasn't all academic in nature. DeBakey's dad was an inveterate tinkerer, and his skills extended to his sons, both of whom became surgeons.

"When I was 13, my father bought me and my 10-year-old brother an old Studebaker, and we took it apart and made it run," says DeBakey. "I think his idea was that if you kept the mind busy, you kept out of mischief."

DeBakey learned to sew as a preschooler, when his mother was giving sewing classes to neighborhood girls. "I was fascinated with her artistry and became a student, too," he says.

That training has helped him in his profession, he says. Indeed, he sewed the first Dacron graft—a product used worldwide today to replace diseased arteries—on his wife's sewing machine in the early 1950's.

"Sewing makes you precise in what you do. The stitches have to be just right. And the cutting of patterns gives me an eye, so I don't have to take a. measurement when I'm doing a graft replacement," he says.

DeBakey has carried out more than 60,000 cardiovascular procedures, trained more than 3000 doctors and written or co-written more than 1300 articles, chapters and books in his career. As well as writings for fellow physicians, he's also co-authored a series of books for the general public. Two, The Living Heart and The Living Heart Diet, made The New York Times' best-seller list. The latest volumes in the series, The Living Heart Brand Name Shopper's Guide and the Living Heart Guide to Eating Out, appeared in 1992 and 1993.

DeBakey started medicine in high gear and has never really slowed down. As a medical student in 1932, he developed the roller pump that later became a critical part of the heart-lung machine—the equipment that made open-heart surgery possible. He was also the first to use an artificial heart pump successfully in a patient, in 1966.

DeBakey has been working on a permanent artificial heart for 30 years. Previous mechanical hearts, such as the famous Jarvik model of the 1980's, were air-powered and didn't work as permanent replacements. A year ago, however, DeBakey showed President Bill Clinton his new heart pump and went on "CBS This Morning" introduce it nationwide.

The device, which is now being tested in animals, "could replace having a transplant," DeBakey told the television audience. "Remember, there are only about 2000 donors available for transplants in this country [per year]. A third of the patients that we put on transplant lists die before we can get a donor."

There are "probably 100,000 to 150,000 patients who need this type of device to be restored to normal activity," he said.

The valveless pump weighs only about 50 grams (less than two ounces) and is just 7.5 centimeters (3") long and 2.5 centimeters (1") in diameter. That makes it much lighter and smaller than today's mechanical hearts, which weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 kilos (8 to 10 lbs.) and are used only as "bridges" until a donor heart can be found. Two of DeBakey's tiny pumps could be paired to replace both of the heart's two chambers.

The pump uses under 10 watts of power to run—about one hundredth of what the average home steam iron draws. Its battery is recharged through the skin; the user will put on a special vest and plug it into a normal household current.

The price? DeBakey reckons his pump will cost $10,000, compared with $50,000 for today's artificial hearts.

The Texan isn't the only physician working on a permanent artificial heart pump. Last August, for example, British doctors successfully implanted a battery-driven heart-replacement pump in a human patient, in the first test of such a device as a long-term alternative to heart transplantation. But DeBakey shrugs off any suggestion that that success will short-circuit his own work. "Of course not. Not at all," he says.

The pump used by the British team "is bigger and requires more power to run," he explains. It's also more expensive: Press reports put the price of the device at $60,000.

Next door to his Houston office, DeBakey also proudly shows off part of another NASA-linked project: a telemedicine "hub." From a control center that looks like the set of "Star Trek," facing two large-screen television monitors, DeBakey can direct cameras to help carry out patient diagnoses, or even surgery, at a distant location. The hub is now hooked to a "distant" room just one floor down, but soon it could be receiving data from facilities thousands of kilometers away, via satellite or fiber-optic or telephone lines.

"I think it's going to have a tremendous impact. Using a mobile unit in a van, you can consult even where there isn't a doctor available," DeBakey says. That applies equally to sparsely populated areas of Texas, or locations abroad.

"Remote areas in Saudi Arabia could be linked to the King Faysal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh," says the doctor, who helped set up the cardiovascular program there in the 1970's (See Aramco World, July-August 1979).

Currently, DeBakey is working with officials at the Özal Medical Center in Malatya, in southeastern Turkey, to establish a telemedicine center that could meet the needs of people in isolated areas there.

Why won't the "Texas Tornado" slow down? Too many challenges remain, he says.

"There is so much yet unknown in my field," says DeBakey. "I have no plans to retire. I've got too much to do."

Arthur Clark is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, and a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the January/February 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1995 images.