Michael DeBakey, Heart Surgery Pioneer Michael DeBakey was a pioneer of the bypass surgery, the heart pump and other life-saving innovations in health. He died Friday at the age of 99. Debakey's friend and colleague, Valentine Fuster, talks about the surgeon's legacy.
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Michael DeBakey, Heart Surgery Pioneer

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Michael DeBakey, Heart Surgery Pioneer

Michael DeBakey, Heart Surgery Pioneer

Michael DeBakey, Heart Surgery Pioneer

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Michael DeBakey was a pioneer of the bypass surgery, the heart pump and other life-saving innovations in health. He died Friday at the age of 99. Debakey's friend and colleague, Valentine Fuster, talks about the surgeon's legacy.

Conversation With DeBakey

Michael DeBakey joined Ira Flatow on Talk of the Nation in 2003 to discuss his life in medicine.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Literally millions of people are walking around today thanks to one man: Dr. Michael DeBakey. The renowned heart researcher died yesterday in Houston at age 99. His lasting legacy was early work on the coronary bypass.

Here's Dr. DeBakey in a 1993 interview with NPR's Ira Flatow describing that first bypass.

Dr. MICHAEL DEBAKEY (Late Heart Researcher): In desperation, I decided I did what I'd been doing in experimental laboratory. I just took piece of, you know, this leg and did a bypass on him just like we did in the animal. And fortunately it worked. And the fact that it was successful was very important. That gave us a great deal of courage in other words to proceed.

SEABROOK: And proceed he did with a wide ranging career that including multiple medical breakthroughs and treatment of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the shah of Iran.

Earlier, I talked with Dr. Valentine Fuster. He's director of the Mount Sinai Heart Center in New York. I asked him about the innovations developed by his long-time colleague and friend, Dr. Debakey.

Dr. VALENTINE FUSTER (Director, Mount Sinai Heart Center; Former President, American Heart Association): Well, one of the main innovations was coronary artery bypass surgery. It is debatable whether he was the first but certainly he really was a pioneer. Then he was the pioneer on artificial heart devices, and he certainly was a great contributor in the transplantation of the heart.

SEABROOK: He flew to Moscow to work on Boris Yeltsin in the mid '90s?

Dr. FUSTER: Yeah. I met him in Moscow, and this was after the operation. Then was when I really learned a lot about him. First of all, one of the things I learned is that how meticulous he was and a perfectionist. Then he had a very open personality. I can give you an anecdote.

Just after Yeltsin was operated on, we were there, all the cardiovascular surgeons that operated on him with Debakey, and there were about, I don't know, 20 people or so. And at the very end of dinner, somebody said, well, I think what we should do is to celebrate it and let's go to dance. And there's no question he was the best dancer of everybody.

He was, I believe, at that time he was probably age 91, 92. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FUSTER: ...he was a man for all seasons.

SEABROOK: Dr. Fuster, I understand Dr. Debakey had a heart problem the last couple of years in his 90s, and had to have surgery?

Dr. FUSTER: Yeah.

SEABROOK: A kind of surgery that he himself pioneered?

Dr. FUSTER: It's true. Among many, many interventions that he pioneered, one was dissection of aorta or aortic aneurysm. In 2006, he actually developed this disease. And the question was at that time, well, he's age 97. Should we operate at him? Should we not? It was a great debate finally among the doctors and the family and so forth.

But he was operated with a similar technique that actually he developed.

SEABROOK: Wow. And Dr. Debakey trained, educated many, many people.

Dr. FUSTER: Yeah, actually this is a good point. He was an educator. Very devoted to the young students and he had a tremendous influence in young people. Many people that are now colleagues of mine in France, they always mention the time that he devoted to train them. He was a passionate of his field, and he always said I was born to do what I am doing.

SEABROOK: Dr. Michael Debakey died in Houston at the age of 99 on Friday night. Dr. Valentine Fuster, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Dr. FUSTER: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Valentine Fuster is the director of the Mount Sinai Heart Center in New York. He's also the former president of the American Heart Association.

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