World-famous heart surgeon on campus Oct. 5

by Vicky Cerino, UNMC public affairs | September 28, 2005

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Michael DeBakey, M.D.
Some believe the secret to aging well is to stay active. Two men nearing 100 years old who've made major impacts in medicine, and who are the epitome of aging well, will meet again Oct. 5 during a special lectureship at UNMC.

World-famous heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, M.D., 97, will speak during a lectureship named in honor of the scientific achievements of UNMC's Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D., who soon will be 90 years old. Dr. Harman is known internationally as the father of the free radical theory of aging, and is credited with discovering the role of antioxidants (vitamins C, E and beta-carotene) in fighting heart disease and cancer.

Dr. DeBakey will speak at the Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D. Lectureship in Biomedical Gerontology on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at noon in the UNMC Durham Research Center Auditorium. Drs. DeBakey and Harman met years ago during an American Aging Society meeting in Houston.

The special event is the second Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D. Lectureship in Biomedical Gerontology being held this year. Normally held once a year, the lectureship was established by the University of Nebraska Foundation to honor the scientific achievements of Dr. Harman, UNMC emeritus professor of internal medicine.

Internationally recognized as a premier surgeon, ingenious innovator, researcher and teacher, Dr. DeBakey will speak to a health care audience about ventricular assistance in heart failure. A pioneer in cardiology, he is actively on staff at the Methodist Hospital of Houston and is director of the DeBakey Heart Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He also is chancellor emeritus and professor of surgery of the Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. DeBakey's visit is presented by the UNMC Department of Surgery.

"The Department of Surgery is both excited and honored to have the opportunity to co-host the visit of Dr. Michael DeBakey to our campus," said Byers Shaw Jr., M.D., chief of the UNMC Department of Surgery. "Dr. DeBakey is one of the best known surgeons in history and to have the opportunity to hear him speak is a special treat for all of us."

Dr. DeBakey's innovative research and surgery techniques revolutionized the field of cardiovascular medicine. He has logged many "firsts" in the field of cardiology. One of his greatest achievements was developing an artificial graft that's been used hundreds of thousands of times.

"He could probably do an aneurysm better than anybody in the history of the world, and he did some of the most complicated surgeries," said Eugene "Speedy" Zweiback, M.D., Omaha retired surgeon, who spent what he described as a very intense, one year post-doctorate fellowship under Dr. DeBakey.

Dr. DeBakey is recognized for inventing and refining several medical devices and procedures used daily to save lives. Two of his most significant inventions include the roller pump, an essential component of the heart-lung machine, which helped usher in the era of open-heart surgery, and the DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), a miniature device implanted into the heart to increase blood flow.

He also helped develop the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units that saved thousands of lives during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and he helped establish the research program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Dr. DeBakey served as an advisor to almost every president in the past 50 years, and he received numerous awards from educational institutions, professional and civic organizations and governments worldwide, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction in 1969.

In 1953, Dr. DeBakey performed the first successful endarterectomy - the surgical removal of the lining of an artery that is diseased or blocked. He devised many other new surgical procedures, devices and more than 50 instruments for the improvement of patient care, including an atraumatic vascular surgical clamp that bears his name.

Dr. Zweiback said Dr. DeBakey had a reputation for being very demanding and tough. "He is arguably the number one surgeon of the 20th century," said Dr. Zweiback, who worked 10 to 16 hours a day during his fellowship under Dr. DeBakey.

He said the daily routine included seeing more than 100 patients and doing 16 heart surgeries. "In those days, heart surgery was in its infancy, so there were only a half a dozen places where you could do the kind of things that are now done in hundreds of places."

Dr. Zweiback said the most important things he learned from Dr. DeBakey were attention to detail and that trying harder would make you a better person.

"He was meticulous about paying attention to detail ... if you didn't pay attention to detail you were gone. You were fired." Dr. Zweiback said. "He didn't allow anything to get in his way. He was very, very smart, a great visionary and wasn't afraid to be innovative. He was a master of using people very effectively."

Kim Duncan, M.D., UNMC professor and chief, section of cardiothoracic surgery, and director of cardiothoracic surgery at Children's Hospital, trained with a cardiologist who trained with Dr. DeBakey in the 1960s. "Dr. DeBakey's legacy is really incredible, and his intellectual and technical longevity are unbelievable," Dr. Duncan said.

"There have been many great surgeons in medical history, but he is probably the one who has demonstrated the greatest variety and depth of character that make one truly great," he said. "His ground-breaking contributions in the development of vascular and cardiac surgery make him probably the most prolific and productive surgeon in history.

"I was surprised to hear he was coming to Omaha. I am intrigued as to how he has been able to remain so vibrant and productive in his career after age 65 -- when most surgeons have stopped doing surgery," Dr. Duncan said.

Dr. DeBakey received his bachelor's, master's and doctor of medicine degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans. He completed his internship and residency in surgery at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and his surgical fellowships at the University of Strasbourg, France, and at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

From 1937 to 1948, he was a faculty member of the Tulane School of Medicine Department of Surgery. From 1942 to 1946, he was on military leave as a member of the Surgical Consultants' Division in the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army, and in 1945 he became its director and received the U. S. Army Legion of Merit.

He served as chairman of the Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine from 1948 to 1993, as president from 1969 to 1979, and as chancellor from 1979 to 1996, when he became chancellor emeritus.