There exist many professions where those in them are called upon to save lives, but few require the finesse and skill that go with cardiology. It is a field of medicine that has evolved from the trial and error of numerous decades, starting out as something crude and experimental, and ending up as an art form. In this article, we will take a closer look at two of the foremost cardiologists of the modern age—Drs. Michael DeBakey, and Denton Cooley.
Michael DeBakey started life on September 7, 1908 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He studied at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana and received his B.S. in 1930, his M.D. in 1932, and his M.S. in 1935.
Early on, he showed real genius. Before he had even obtained his M.S., DeBakey invented a special pump that is a vital part of the heart-lung machine, a machine that makes open-heart surgery possible by doing the job of the lungs and heart while surgery is being performed. He also devised a system for fixing aortic aneurysms through the process of grafting frozen blood vessels in the body to replace vessels that could not be repaired. Other accomplishments achieved in the 1960s included successfully performing the first carotid endarterectomy for victims of stroke, the first implant of a ventricular assist apparatus, and the first coronary artery bypass. Such trailblazing in the 1930s was obviously only the beginning.
DeBakey volunteered for service during the Second World War, becoming instrumental in the founding of MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units. Though no longer used, MASH units saved untold scores of lives in the six decades that they were used. Additionally, DeBakey pioneered the establishment of the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital research system.
Later in life, DeBakey relocated to Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s most advanced centers of medicine and a bastion for medical research. It was here that he really came into his own element, and here that his fame began to grow. He obtained a highly distinguished position as both professor of surgery and chairman of the surgery department at the renowned Baylor College of Medicine. After, he became president for ten years, holding the position from 1969 to 1979. From 1979 onward, he served as chancellor at Baylor until 1996.
Though he died in 2008, his legacy is well enshrined both in and outside of the medical community. He has received countless honorary degrees from universities around the world, as well as having been on the cover of time magazine. Perhaps most distinguished of all, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Another Maverick in the field of cardiology was Dr. Denton Cooley. Born in Houston, Texas on August 22, 1920, Cooley is also world renowned for both his much applauded skill as a surgeon and his contributions to the field of medicine. He is perhaps best known for his first successful implementation of an artificial heart, a temporary device substituting the heart that was invented by Dr. Robert Jarvik.
Cooley’s interest in medicine started at a young age. His father was a dentist, and this got him hooked. In fact, it was originally Cooley’s intention to become a dentist. An avid hunter and camper, Cooley also enjoyed the outdoors that served as an outlet to explore his world. A curious sort of person, he was always asking why. Just As the great engineers explore the principles that animate machinery, Cooley was always exploring what made the biological work.
Like DeBakey, Cooley showed promise early on. He received his M.D. from the famous John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland back in 1944. He participated in the first intracardiac operations in England, working alongside Lord Russell Brock in London. By 1954, he had moved to Houston, Texas and had joined Baylor University College of Medicine. Later, he moved onto serve as president and surgeon in chief of the Texas Heart Institute, also holding the office of professor of clinical surgery at the University of Texas Medical School’s Houston campus.
Cooley and his dedicated team boast more open-heart surgeries than any other group in the world—over 118,000 of them, performed over many decades. He has had the honor of co-authoring nearly 1,500 articles and has written twelve books, including his memoirs, 100,000 Hearts. It has been said that he used to condition himself for the minutia involved with surgery by tying cherry stems inside a matchbox, a feat most would find difficult. With such skilled hands, it is no wonder that most of Cooley’s surgeries were successful.
Cooley’s Freedom Medal
A receiver of the Medal of Freedom and countless other honors from all over the world, Cooley has truly achieved more in a lifetime than most people ever hope to achieve. Now age 92, Cooley’s place in medical history is well cemented. It can be hard to measure a man, but over 118,000 surgeries is a good place to start.
In looking at these two great men, we have only really glimpsed their long careers, careers that accounted for the saving of many lives, and by extension, giving life back to the families who cared about those that went under the skillful hands of both DeBakey and Cooley.
Their work set the gold standard, and literally “wrote the book” on open-heart surgery. Because of their contribution to the field of cardiology, not only are the people that live and breathe because of them grateful, but future generations who will benefit from techniques pioneered by these men can be grateful too. The world will always owe them a debt of gratitude.