A SURGEON TO HONOR

Dr. Michael E. Debakey was internationally recognized as an ingenious medical inventor and innovator, a gifted teacher, premier surgeon, and medical statesman. The world lost a great man when he died on July 11, 2008.

Dr. Debakey’s patients included many dignitaries and heads of states all over the globe: the Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Shah of Iran, King Hussain of Jordan, the US presidents: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The whole world knew him as a gifted surgeon, but not many people knew that Dr. Michael DeBakey, the son of Shaker Debakey, was an Arab from Lebanon.

Mr. Shaker Debaghi, was a young Lebanese Arab who migrated to US early in 1900, (probably 1907), with his young wife Raheejah. He worked as a pharmacist in a private pharmacy in the USA. Their first son was born in the USA in July 1908. They called him Mishail, which is how the Lebanese pronounce and spell the English name Michael. The English name Michael is Michel in Arabic. The Arabic name, Debaghi, was very difficult for Americans to pronounce; so they had to Americanize (or Anglicize) it later. Debaghi became Debakey and Mishail was written in English correctly as Michael. The Arabic name Debaghi indicated to me that his ancestors' business was processing and selling animal skins. Therefore, leather may have been their family trade.

The ancestral city of Dr. Debakey was Marjeyoun city, in south Lebanon, where some of his relatives are still living. He visited the city and took pictures of his family’s old house three years before his death. The Lebanese were preparing a large white statue of him to be erected in the middle of that city and Dr. Debakey was planning to attend the inauguration ceremony and give a speech. Unfortunately, he died before the statue was ready. Even though he grew up in the USA, his Arabic was good. Besides Arabic and English, Dr. Debakey mastered French and German. Four months after his death the statue was uncovered in a large ceremony and pigeons were released in the air. His wife attended the ceremony and planted a tree next to his statue.


 

When Michael was a little boy his future dream was to become a physician. His dream came true and he became one of the most known physicians in the world, a legendary surgeon of the twentieth century. Debakey received his bachelor's, master's, and M.D. degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans. He completed his residency in surgery at the University of Strasbourg, France, and at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

While in medical school, Debakey invented the roller pump, which became an essential component of the heart-lung machine and helped usher in the era of open-heart surgery.

Best known for his trailblazing efforts in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, he was the first to perform successful excision and graft replacement of aneurysms of the thoracic aorta and obstructive lesions of the major arteries. When he reached the age of 98 years, he needed that same surgery he invented for his own condition of aortic aneurysm. We followed the news of that surgery closely, with hope for its success. The New York Times on December 25, 2006 came up with this headline title: “THE MAN ON THE TABLE DEVISED THE SURGERY.” The following is a part of that article:

In late afternoon last Dec. 31, 2006 Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, then 97, was alone at home in Houston in his study preparing a lecture when a sharp pain ripped through his upper chest and between his shoulder blades, then moved into his neck.

Dr. DeBakey, one of the most influential heart surgeons in history, assumed his heart would stop in a few seconds.

“It never occurred to me to call 911 or my physician,” Dr. DeBakey said, adding: “As foolish as it may appear, you are, in a sense, a prisoner of the pain, which was intolerable. You’re thinking, What could I do to relieve myself of it. If it becomes intense enough, you’re perfectly willing to accept cardiac arrest as a possible way of getting rid of the pain.”

But when his heart kept beating, Dr. DeBakey suspected that he was not having a heart attack. As he sat alone, he decided that a ballooning had probably weakened the aorta, the main artery leading from the heart, and that the inner lining of the artery had torn, known as a dissecting aortic aneurysm.

No one in the world was more qualified to make that diagnosis than Dr. DeBakey because, as a younger man, he devised the operation to repair such torn aortas, a condition virtually always fatal. The operation has been performed at least 10,000 times around the world and is among the most demanding for surgeons and patients.

Over the past 60 years, Dr. DeBakey has changed the way heart surgery is performed. He was one of the first to perform coronary bypass operations. He trained generations of surgeons at the Baylor College of Medicine; operated on more than 60,000 patients; and in 1996 was summoned to Moscow by Boris Yeltsin, then the president of Russia, to aid in his quintuple heart bypass operation.

Now Dr. DeBakey is making history in a different way — as a patient. He was released from Methodist Hospital in Houston in September and is back at work. At 98, he is the oldest survivor.

The surgeons replaced the damaged portion of Dr. DeBakey’s aorta with a six- to eight-inch graft made of Dacron, similar to material used in shirts. The graft was the type that Dr. DeBakey devised in the 1950s.

It is not my intention to enumerate his remarkable and numerous achievements in this short article. Baylor College of Medicine has put on its home page some of his accomplishments. An excerpt from that page reads:

DeBakey was a pioneer in the development of an artificial heart; he was the first to use a partial artificial heart--a left ventricular bypass pump--successfully. He conceived the idea of lining a bypass pump and its connections with Dacron velour, a concept he later applied to the Dacron arterial grafts he had developed.

In 1953, he performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy, establishing the field of surgery for strokes. In 1964, DeBakey and associates performed the first successful aortocoronary-artery bypass with autogenous vein graft. In 1968, he led a team of surgeons in a historic multiple-transplant procedure in which the heart, kidneys, and one lung of a donor were transplanted into four recipients.

Dr. Michael Debakey deserves the praise he received from US institutions and Medical Societies for his extraordinary accomplishments in Medicine. The Arabs and especially our brothers, the Lebanese, did not do enough to honor this great American Surgeon of Arab origin. 

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