Monday, July 14, 2008

Dr. Michael DeBakey, Last of His Kind

Dr. Michael DeBakey died last week of “natural causes” at the age of 99.

Anyone over the age of 50 will remember Dr. DeBakey as a pioneering heart surgeon - possibly the world’s most well known doctor during the last half of the 20th century.

The offspring of Lebanese immigrants, Michael Debakey was one of those rare individuals uniquely suited to his time and place.

The heart has always had an ability to excite the emotions. It is the symbol of both love and life. When it stops, life stops. For most of history, the idea that it could be surgically repaired was pure fantasy if not irreverent.

At some point, scientific and technical progress had advanced enough to make it possible, but it took someone with DeBakey’s combination of intelligence, judgment, energy, ego, ambition, charisma, hubris and PR instinct, together with a hospitable American milieu, to make it happen and to create the surgical empire in Houston that made him famous.

It is said that he made his first artificial blood vessel on his wife’s sewing machine. He is also known for having invented the first practical pump to take over for the heart during surgery. By now, opportunities available to an individual doctor for inventing his own medical appliances have been pretty much exhausted. Furthermore, the law would no longer allow it.

Medicine, and even surgery, now depends on systems as much as on individuals. Those who knew Michael DeBakey would find is hard to imagine subjecting him to the discipline of an institutionally imposed system.

So let us honor the memory of Michael DeBakey.

There won’t be another one.

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