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Nation Honors Renowned Cardiovascular Surgeon


The latest recipient of the highest civilian medal presented by the U.S. Congress is Dr. Michael DeBakey. The pre-eminent heart surgeon, who will mark his 100th birthday in September, has operated on 60,000 patients at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and hundreds more princes, politicians, and paupers elsewhere. VOA's Ted Landphair has more.

Now, this man whose Lebanese immigrant parents ran a drug store in the little Louisiana city of Lake Charles, is the 147th Congressional Gold Medal winner. He joins the likes of civil-rights martyr Martin Luther King, Junior; Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine; and prolific inventor Thomas Edison.

"After receiving this news, my pride in being a citizen of the United States of America is overflowing," DeBakey said shortly after receiving the medal. "I think the individual in this country has a better chance of self-fulfillment than anywhere else in the world, no matter what his origin may be, and no matter what financial level he came from."

As a boy, Michael DeBakey was a voracious student, sometimes, as House Speaker NancyPelosi pointed out at the Congressional medal ceremony, in unconventional ways: "His mother taught him how to sew. She could not have imagined then that the little hands of her little boy would become some of the finest surgical instruments the world had ever known."

DeBakey would one day sew the Dacron tubes that he would use in 1964 to perform the world's first successful heart bypass.

Half a century earlier, young Michael -- whom his parents had challenged to read a book a week -- had complained that the local librarian would not allow him to check out one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittannica. As President Bush noted at the medal ceremony, DeBakey's father solved the problem by buying the boy and his three siblings the entire set.

"Michael read every word of every article in every volume," the president explained.

And President Bush said the boy also learned lessons in compassion. On one of the family's weekly trips to the local orphanage, their car loaded with donations of food and clothes, Michael was horrified to see that his mother was giving away his favorite baseball cap. "His mother simply told him, 'You have a lot of caps. Those children have none.' It's a lesson he never forgot, and Michael DeBakey has been giving to the world ever since," President Bush said. "His legacy is holding the fragile and sacred gift of human life in his hands, and returning it unbroken."

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that healing touch began in medical school in New Orleans. "When his fellow students were still learning the basics, Dr. DeBakey invented a breakthrough pump for blood transfusions that led to the first-ever open-heart operations," Senator Reid related. "Remember, this was 1931!"

As a thriving surgeon and professor, DeBakey volunteered for service in World War II, where the horrors of the battlefield inspired him to design the mobile army surgical hospital -- or M.A.S.H. unit -- which has saved thousands of lives in subsequent U.S. wars.

Michael DeBakey set up health-care systems for the U.S. Veterans' Administration, supervised the first multi-organ transplant, established the field of stroke surgery, and introduced telemedicine using satellite technology.

Senator Reid says the precise number of lives Michael DeBakey has saved will never be known."But each of us who lives, and our children and grandchildren, and every generation thereafter, will serve as a living, eternal tribute to the life's work of the great Dr. Michael DeBakey."

One of those tributes came from an unlikely source: the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1996, just seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it granted DeBakey honorary membership, in part because he had just supervised quintuple bypass surgery that saved the life of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

And two years ago, Michael DeBakey's procedures saved his own life. Dr. Clifford Kitten repaired a torn artery. "I'm very proud, extremely proud, that I learned from the master," Dr. Kitten said afterward.

Then 97, DeBakey recovered in time to attend the dedication of a Houston medical library named in his honor. He regained his sense of humor, too. "I'm not sure I should have been here for this!" he chortled.

But it's a good thing, explained President Bush, that Michael DeBakey was still around to mend broken hearts. "Our lifetimes [in the United States] have been extended by more than 50 percent within the course of a century, and the man we're honoring today is part of the reason why," the president noted.

Michael DeBakey says one word sums up everything he's tried to achieve in his long life. Theword is excellence. Says the nonagenarian, "While I may not always have caught up with it, I was trying always to pursue it."

Pioneering cardiologist Michael Ellis DeBakey says the Congressional Gold Medal is his highest honor because of its emphasis on citizenship and public spirit. But he adds that young people should not work for accolades, but for the fulfillment that comes with making a contribution to a community or a country. Or, in Michael DeBakey's case, to the world.

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