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