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Famed Heart Surgeon Michael DeBakey Dies at 99


World-famous heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey has died at the age of 99. As VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington, DeBakey pioneered heart bypass surgery and invented numerous devices to help heart patients.

Dr. Michael DeBakey was considered the originator of modern heart and blood-vessel surgery. He led efforts to develop artificial hearts and heart pumps to sustain patients waiting for transplants, and he helped to create more than 70 surgical instruments.

DeBakey died Friday night at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, from natural causes. He was two months short of his 100th birthday.

In April, DeBakey received the highest civilian medal presented by the U.S. Congress - the Congressional Gold Medal. At the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said DeBakey began inventing and innovating while he was a student at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"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. Remember, this was 1931!" he said.

The roller pump DeBakey invented became the major component of the heart-lung machine, which takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery. DeBakey and his associates first used it successfully in 1967, and a short time later, he talked with VOA about the significance of the heart pump.

"This means, of course, that it is possible to utilize the pump in very critically ill patients who might not otherwise survive a critical operation," he said. "I believe we can, therefore, look forward to more widespread use of the pump in the future."

DeBakey regarded the development of a mechanical heart as the logical next step, and he was a vital part of the research and experiments in this field. In 1967, he told VOA an artificial heart would solve the problem of having to wait for a natural heart from a suitable donor.

"If we had available to us an artificial heart that could satisfactorily replace the function of a normal heart, then we would be able to treat most patients in that manner," he said.


In 1968 and '69, DeBakey helped open the heart transplant era. With the invention of drugs that control the body's rejection of new organs, the Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston, Texas became an internationally-renowned heart-transplant center.

DeBakey also pioneered the clearing of blocked arteries to the brain to prevent strokes, the bypassing of clogged coronary arteries to prevent heart attacks, and the repair of aortic aneurysms.

Procedures invented by DeBakey even helped save his own life. In 2006, Dr. Clifford Kitten operated on DeBakey to repair a damaged aorta.

"I'm very proud, extremely proud, that I learned from the master," he said.

Michael DeBakey performed more than 60,000 heart surgeries during his 70-year career. His patients ranged from people with no money at all to famous figures such as Russian President Boris Yeltsin, King Hussein of Jordan, the Shah of Iran and U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

U.S. President George Bush helped present Dr. DeBakey with the Congressional Gold Medal in April.

"Our lifetimes [in the United States] have been extended by more than 50 percent within the course of a century, and the man we are honoring today is part of the reason why," he said.

At the ceremony, DeBakey, whose Lebanese immigrant parents ran a drug store in the Southern U.S. city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, said he was humbled to receive one of America's highest civilian honors.

"After receiving this news, my pride in being a citizen of the United States of America is overflowing," he said. "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."

Heart surgeon, inventor and medical statesman Dr. Michael DeBakey died Friday at the age 99.


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