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In Memoriam

Michael Ellis DeBakey, M.D.: September 7, 1908 to July 11, 2008

Noon, George P.

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doi: 10.1097/MAT.0b013e31818d0a64
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Dr. DeBakey is world renowned. His accomplishments during his lifetime are remarkable and may be even unbelievable. He has touched the lives of all of us who have been associated with him and hundreds of thousands who have benefited from his labors. Dr. DeBakey was a surgeon, educator, researcher, inventor, innovator, soldier, statesman, humanitarian, and philanthropist.

While a medical student at Tulane in the 1930s, he invented the roller pump to use for blood transfusions. It was later used in the heart lung machine. He was enlisted in the Army in 1942 working with the Surgeon General’s Office. He spent time in Africa and Europe (Figure 1). When he was eligible for discharge at the end of the war, he volunteered for another year to complete some unfinished projects. As a result of his military service, he helped establish Mobile Army Surgical Units (MASH), a registry for war injuries, the Veterans Hospitals and the National Library of Medicine.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.:
Dr. DeBakey in the military (1942–1946).

Dr. DeBakey returned to New Orleans after his discharge from the Army and became a member of the faculty in Dr. Alton Ochsner’s Department of Surgery at Tulane. In 1948, Dr. Ochsner encouraged Dr. DeBakey to accept an offer from Baylor University College of Medicine to be Chairman of the Department of Surgery. Dr. DeBakey accepted but after a disappointing start, came close to declining. There were no residents or full time faculty and no teaching hospital. Through Mr. Ben Taub he was able to enlist The Jefferson Davis Hospital. The Naval Hospital was converted to a Veterans Hospital. Dr. DeBakey had recommended that all Veterans Hospitals, when possible, should be affiliated with a medical school. The Houston Veterans Administration Hospital (VAH) affiliated with Baylor University College of Medicine and is now named The M. E. DeBakey Veterans Administration Hospital.

The Methodist Hospital opened in The Texas Medical Center in 1951. Under Dr. DeBakey’s leadership and with support from Baylor University College of Medicine and Ted Bowen, President of the Methodist Hospital, an extraordinary relationship was developed. The first intensive care unit was established. Dr. DeBakey’s Department of Surgery blossomed with faculty, residents, fellows, researchers, and visitors from all around the world (Figure 2). His sisters, Dr. Lois DeBakey and Selma DeBakey later came from New Orleans to support him and dedicated their lives to his work.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.:
Dr. DeBakey made the Texas Medical Center one of the best medical centers in the US.

As he and his associates developed cardiovascular surgery, Baylor University College of Medicine, The Methodist Hospital, and The Texas Medical Center became the Mecca. New operations and therapies were developed. Patients from all walks of life flocked to Houston to see Dr. DeBakey, hoping for a miracle. To support his clinical programs, new faculty in other departments were recruited. Baylor University College of Medicine which had been a 3rd ranked Medical School when he arrived became one of the nation’s best. During his 50-year term as the Dean, President, and Chancellor of Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. DeBakey made the Texas Medical Center one of the best and largest medical centers in the world (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.:
Texas Medical Center—1947.
Figure 4.
Figure 4.:
Texas Medical Center—today.

In 1964, Dr DeBakey was instrumental in obtaining National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for development of a total artificial heart. An outstanding research program was developed at Baylor University College of Medicine collaborating with Rice University. Dr. DeBakey performed the first successful use of a paracoporeal left ventricular device for post cardiotomy heart failure in 1966. He was one of the first in The United States to start a heart transplant program in 1968. The first multiorgan donor harvest was performed, transplanting a heart, lung, and two kidneys. The multi-tasking Dr. DeBakey became the first President of Baylor College of Medicine in 1969. On the coattails of Dr. DeBakey, the medical center continued to flourish and grow. In 1975 Dr. DeBakey was instrumental in the establishment and funding of The National Heart and Blood Vessel Research and Development Centers. One of these elite centers was established at Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital. Dr. DeBakey as an educator was very proud of the M. E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions which he was instrumental in creating.

In 1988, along with Dr. George Noon and engineers from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an axial flow left ventricular assist device was developed. The MicroMed DeBakey Ventricular Device began clinical trials in Europe in 1998 with subsequent approval for clinical use and United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) trials in 2000. We are expecting FDA approval in the near future. This is the first nonpulsatile blood pump for left ventricular assistance (Figures 5 and 6). Dr. DeBakey is also known for developing the first nonpulsatile blood pump for cardiopulmonary bypass (Figure 7).

Figure 5.
Figure 5.:
The first nonpulsatile axial flow blood pump for ventricular assistance (DeBakey-Noon VAD) (A) DeBakey-Noon VAD (far left insert inside of the ventricle. (B) Inside structure of the pump. The impeller rotates approximately 10,000 rpm and produces 5 L/min.
Figure 6.
Figure 6.:
DeBakey Noon axial flow pump with the patient implanted in 1988. Right, the LVAD pump (left ventricular assist device) between the left ventricle and aorta.
Figure 7.
Figure 7.:
The first successful cardiopulmonary bypass system in 1953 utilized the DeBakey roller pump. The blood pump was developed in 1934 by Dr. DeBakey when he was a medical school student.

A new era in vascular surgery is emerging. Endovascular procedures are being developed reducing the need for many of the open operations that were developed by Dr. DeBakey. He was very supportive of the development and refinement of these new catheter based therapies.

At the age of 97, Dr DeBakey developed and was operated upon for a Type II dissecting aneurysm by this author (Figure 8). He and his colleagues had developed the DeBakey classification and treatment for dissecting aneurysms nearly 50 years earlier. He had also developed the Dacron Graft that was used in the operative procedure.

Figure 8.
Figure 8.:
Dr. DeBakey and his successful aortic surgery by Dr. Noon in 2007. The New York Times, “The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery.”

Dr. DeBakey was discouraged and disappointed when Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital were unable to resolve their differences. Dr. DeBakey was responsible for establishing excellence in both institutions and both were proud of their relationship with Dr. DeBakey. Baylor College of Medicine has the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery and The Methodist Hospital has the M. E. DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center. The Attorney General of Texas and many friends of Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital have encouraged both institutions to continue their collaborations. Dr. DeBakey was especially interested in combining The Transplant and Assist Device Program which was jointly established in the 1960’s.

Dr. DeBakey performed close to 60,000 surgeries. His awards, recognitions and achievements are too numerous to list. He was especially proud of the Congressional Gold Medal which was presented to him on April 23, 2008 by President Bush (Figure 9). The back side of the medallion would always bring a smile to his face. It read, “The pursuit of excellence has been my objective in life.”

Figure 9.
Figure 9.:
Dr. DeBakey received the Congressional Gold Medal on April 23, 2008.

Dr. DeBakey died unexpectedly on July 11, 2008 just short of his 100th birthday on September 7, 2008. God Bless You, Dr. DeBakey. We will miss you dearly.

In closing, the author would like to share his personal relationship with Dr. DeBakey. “I have known Dr. DeBakey since medical school. I was associated with him as a student, surgical resident, faculty in the Department of Surgery, surgeon for his dissecting aneurysm and as a friend (Figure 10). Dr. DeBakey excelled as a student, physician, surgeon, soldier, educator, researcher, diplomat, visionary, statesman, and leader.

Figure 10.
Figure 10.:
The author worked under Dr. DeBakey for 48 years. Dr. Noon in 1960 (left); Dr. Noon in 2008 (right).

How was Dr. DeBakey able to accomplish so much in his lifetime? First, he was born with lots of brain power. His parents instilled in him, his brother, and sisters the importance of education and pursuit of excellency. He had read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover by the time he graduated from high school. His breadth of knowledge was unbelievable. Dr. DeBakey had boundless energy and endurance. He was determined, focused, and had uncanny insight. His time management skills were astounding. He was a leader, able to stimulate those who worked with him to achieve peak performance.

After recovery from the surgery of the dissecting aneurysm, he came to work every day. His advice and council were sought by many. The Congressional Gold Medal was a highlight of his life. He was very proud to have received it.

I visited Dr. DeBakey shortly before his unexpected death. We talked for more than an hour. We ate together. I had gumbo with fresh peppers I picked from his garden. He ate ice cream.

When I was leaving, I told him I was going to my grandson’s baseball game and would be spending the next week in Aspen with my wife. As I was walking out, he said, “Best of luck to your grandson and have a wonderful week in Aspen and I’ll see you when you return.” God bless you Dr. DeBakey. We will all miss you.”

George P. Noon

Baylor College of Medicine

Houston, Texas

[email protected]

Copyright © 2008 by the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs