Heart Views

: 2009  |  Volume : 10  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 52--53

Tribute to Dr. Michael E. DeBakey

Antonio M Gotto 
 Jr, MD, DPhil Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean and Professor of Medicine Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, USA

Correspondence Address:
Antonio M Gotto
Jr, MD, DPhil Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean and Professor of Medicine Weill Cornell Medical College, New York

How to cite this article:
Gotto AM. Tribute to Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.Heart Views 2009;10:52-53

How to cite this URL:
Gotto AM. Tribute to Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. Heart Views [serial online] 2009 [cited 2023 Nov 30 ];10:52-53
Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2009/10/2/52/63740

Full Text

[SUPPORTING:1]The weekend after Dr. Michael E. DeBakey died, one medical historian described him as the greatest physician of the 20th century. I consider him to be one of the most influential physicians since Galen, a Greek physician born in the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D. Galen was so influential that his theories were accepted as dogma in western medical science for over 1,000 years. I would like to think that Dr. DeBakey will still be remembered a thousand years from now.

The son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States, Dr. DeBakey was an internationally renowned pioneer in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease. His accomplishments in medical science would fill an entire book. His research was published in over 1,000 papers. His contributions as a medical statesman are unparalleled - from helping to start the government-administered health insurance program Medicare in the United States, to promoting the establishment of the National Library of Medicine, to consulting on the heart operation of Boris Yeltsin - and I could go on and on.

I had the opportunity to travel many places with him - and whether it was Turkey, China, or Russia, he was approached by people who thanked him for saving or extending the life of a spouse, child, or loved one. Dr. DeBakey treated the rich, the famous, and the powerful, and he treated the poor and humble. He treated all of his patients with the same dedication to the relief of human pain and suffering.

His influence was truly global and continues to touch people, even in Qatar. A number of years ago, he started the DeBakey High School for Health Professions in Houston, Texas. A couple of days after he died, I received a copy of the Gulf Times. It contained an advertisement for a new program started by the Qatar Foundation. The advertisement read, "DeBakey High School for Health Professions at Qatar is now accepting students applications." I think it is amazing that his influence continues to span the globe in this way and that it connects his Middle Eastern heritage with his illustrious career in the United States.

What set Dr. DeBakey apart from so many others in our field was his basic humanity. There was a period of years when Houston was the mecca of cardiovascular surgery. I remember when the Duke of Windsor said he came to Houston to see "the maestro." I spoke recently with a prominent cardiologist in New York who would send all of his difficult surgical cases to Dr. DeBakey. Not a single time did Dr. DeBakey ever ask, "Can this patient pay? Does he have insurance? Is he on Medicare? Is he a VIP?" He would take one and all, regardless of whom they were. I observed him treat a poor patient with no source of funds with the same attention and respect that he gave to a head of state.

I would like to share a personal experience. One of my daughters was hospitalized scores of times during her high school years. When he was in town, Dr. DeBakey never missed a day visiting her in her room. And some days, this was the only time that her face would brighten up, and she would become animated. One day when he visited, my wife, Anita, was sewing a prom dress for one of our daughter's friends whose mother was ill.

Dr. DeBakey said, "Anita what are you doing?"

My wife told him, and he said, "Let me see your stitches." He examined the dress and said, "These are your basting stitches, aren't they?"

She said, "No, Dr. DeBakey, these are my finishing stitches."

He said, "These are terrible, let me have your scissors!" He ripped out every single stitch and said, "Let me have your needle and thread." He proceeded to resew the dress in its entirety while my wife sat there in a state of astonishment.

Fast-forward 15 years later. Dr. DeBakey was having a New Year's Eve dinner at our home in Houston. My wife cooked gumbo, a kind of stew from Louisiana, which she knew he loved. And, of course, Dr. DeBakey never forgot anything and said, "Anita, you may not be able to sew, but you sure cook good gumbo."

I cannot begin to describe the impact of Dr. DeBakey's influence on my own career. When I told him I was moving to New York at age 60, he said, "No one will miss you more than I will, but you have to go where you can accomplish the most. You know you have another 35 or 40 years of work ahead of you."

In summing up my feelings about Dr. DeBakey, I would include awe, admiration, inspiration, and love. I will remember him as a man of great kindness and extraordinary ability.