To say that Dr. Michael DeBakey was an extraordinary and innovative heart surgeon is a little like saying that Joe DiMaggio was a pretty good ball player.
Dr. DeBakey’s pioneering work in the field of cardiovascular surgery earned him international recognition. He is credited with inventing and perfecting scores of medical devices, techniques, and procedures, which have led to healthy hearts and productive lives for millions throughout the world… including my own!
Additionally, he is credited with developing the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals – M.A.S.H. Units – used in the Korean War.
Dr. DeBakey earned an enviable reputation as a medical statesman. His writings are reflected in more than 1,600 published medical articles, chapters, and books on various aspects of surgery, medicine, health, medical research, and medical education, as well as ethical, socio-economic, and philosophic discussion in these fields. He led the movement to establish the National Library of Medicine, which is now the world’s largest and most prestigious repository of medical archives.
In 1969, he received the highest honor a United States citizen can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction.
“Even in his 90s,” the New York Times wrote, “Dr. DeBakey arose at 5 a.m. every day, wrote in his study for two hours and then drove, often in a sports car, to the hospital, where he stayed until 6 p.m. After dinner, he usually returned to his library for more reading or writing before retiring after midnight.”
In March, 1999 I received a letter in response to a survey I sent Dr. DeBakey. That response appeared in my book, “What Do You Stand For?”
“The principles I live by are the ones my parents instilled in me from my earliest remembered years.
“By word and example, they taught me that the honor of my family name and a close family bond were more precious than anything, including wealth; that honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness will always stand the test of time; that kindness, compassion, altruism, patriotism, and public service lift the heart and nourish the soul; that self-discipline, industry, and determination can overcome almost all obstacles; and that the pursuit of excellence is not only fulfilling, but exhilarating.
“They showed me, by their own charitable deeds that it is, indeed, more blessed to give than to receive, and they insisted that everyone can, and should, make some contribution to humanity, no matter how small. It was, in fact, their model of humanitarianism and our exemplary family physician who sparked my early desire of becoming a physician.
“My parents’ principle of patriotism tested me when I was a young academic physician, on the threshold of my long-held dream of a career in medical research, teaching, and patient care. I had a number of research subjects that intrigued me and propelled me to spend long hours in the laboratory searching for answers to the causes and cures of several unsolved disabling and fatal diseases. Then America became involved in World War II. To enter the military at this stage meant interrupting my fervent desire to probe the deep chasms of medical mysteries – to surrender some of the most productive years of my carefully charted course.
“But the love of my country and its principles of freedom and personal responsibility that my parents taught me pulled me in the direction of signing up for service. Then I was declared an ‘essential’ member of the faculty at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. I could stay in my post guilt-free and pursue the career that I had longed for since earliest childhood.
“I discussed my situation with my parents, who urged me to make my own decision, but who reminded me of every citizen’s responsibility. I knew what I must do: I asked the School to release me from the ‘essential’ category and joined the U.S. Army.
“At the end of the War, I was asked to delay my return to civilian status and remain yet another year in the Surgeon General’s Office to help organize the transfer and care of wounded servicemen to hospitals in this country. I readily agreed, and at the end of that period returned to Tulane Medical School and resumed a most fulfilling and enjoyable career there and, later, at Baylor College of Medicine in medical research, teaching, and patient care.
“I have never regretted allowing altruism to supersede self-interest by extirpating those fertile years from my academic career, and I was able, through good fortune, to pursue research and scholarly activities while I was in the service.”