Pioneering heart surgeon DeBakey dies at age 99

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HOUSTON, July 12 (Reuters) - Surgeon Michael DeBakey, whose ground-breaking heart transplants and coronary bypass operations made him one of the giants of 20th century medicine, has died at age 99.

The Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital said DeBakey died on Friday of natural causes. Methodist Hospital in Houston was his primary surgical hospital for many years.

In a career that spanned more than seven decades, DeBakey developed a number of new surgical procedures that now are standard in treating heart ailments and led many to consider him the father of modern cardiovascular surgery.

His best known innovation was the now-common coronary bypass operation for clogged arteries, which he first performed in 1964, using leg veins to bypass blocked or damaged areas between the aorta and coronary arteries.

"He has improved the human condition and touched the lives of generations to come," said Ron Girotto, president of the Methodist Hospital system.

DeBakey, the Louisiana-born son of Lebanese immigrants, was still a student at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1932 when he created the roller pump, which would be a critical component of the heart-lung machine that helped make open-heart surgery possible.

During World War Two, DeBakey served in the Surgeon General's office and was credited with developing the mobile Army surgical hospitals -- MASH units -- that moved medical care closer to the battle lines and hastened treatment of wounded soldiers.

In 1953, using his wife's sewing machine, he fashioned out of Dacron the first artificial artery for repairing damaged arteries in a surgery he pioneered.

DeBakey became a medical celebrity in the 1960s when surgeons developed treatments such as heart transplants that captured the fancy of the press and public.

In May 1965, he was on the cover of Time magazine and as his reputation grew, DeBakey was sought out by sick celebrities and ailing world leaders. Actors Marlene Dietrich and Jerry Lewis, shipbuilder Aristotle Onassis and many other well-known figures became his patients. He met his second wife at a party at Frank Sinatra's home.


DeBakey had a warm relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who asked him to be his secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. DeBakey refused but urged Johnson to pass the Medicare program because he knew it would help the elderly.

Johnson also became a DeBakey patient and made secret trips to Houston for examinations.

In 1996 DeBakey helped treat Boris Yeltsin, sitting in as a consultant while his former student Renat Akchurin performed quintuple bypass surgery on the Russian president, who called him "a magician of the heart."

DeBakey began developing his magic as a child, learning to sew from his mother who was a talented seamstress. He said he would later dedicate himself to surgery "because I would put to use the manual dexterity I developed as a child."

DeBakey had a long-running rivalry with another superstar heart surgeon, Denton Cooley of Houston. They had worked together in the 1950s but a rift developed when Cooley won international acclaim by implanting the first artificial heart in a human. DeBakey said the device was identical to one he had been working on and had been used without permission.

The feud was chronicled in a Life magazine cover story but in November 2007 the surgeons announced they had reconciled.

In his later years, DeBakey became a leading voice on the need for animal research, opposing groups that said it was cruel and unnecessary. He also was an advocate for veterans health care and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Houston is named after him.

DeBakey also trained thousands of surgeons during his career. He worked daily into his late 90s, making the rounds at Houston's Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, where he was chancellor emeritus.

DeBakey received many awards in his career, including the Congressional Gold Medal in April 2008 for his lifetime achievements in medicine. (Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Bill Trott and Vicki Allen)