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Lebanese American Dr. Michael DeBakey to Recieve Congressional Gold Medal April 23rd

posted on: Apr 23, 2008

The United States Capitol Rotunda will be the backdrop on April 23 when President George W. Bush presents the Congressional Gold Medal to heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, M.D.

Public Law 110-95, approved by President Bush on October 16, 2007, authorized the United States Mint to strike a gold medal to honor Dr. DeBakey for his many outstanding contributions to the Nation.

Michael Ellis DeBakey is a world renowned cardiovascular surgeon, medical inventor, medical statesperson, and teacher who is chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, chair and Olga Keith Weiss Professor of its department of surgery, and director of the DeBakey Heart Center. He is the recipient of the America’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Honor with Distinction (awarded in 1969), and of the country’s highest scientific award, the National Medal of Science (1987).

DeBakey is best known for his landmark cardiovascular surgeries , including the first successful implantation of an artificial heart in 1966. He also pioneered the use of artificial arteries andcoronary bypass , invented new equipment and instruments, and conducted important research on the causes of arteriosclerosis.

Born on September 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Lebanese immigrants Shaker Morris and Raheega (Zorba) DeBakey, Michael DeBakey was the oldest of five children. His father was a successful pharmacist and businessperson, his mother “a compassionate person who was always trying to help someone,” according to DeBakey in the Tulanian. His keen intellect was obvious at an early age: as a reward for doing well in his schoolwork, DeBakey’s parents would let him readthe Encyclopedia Britannica; he had completed the whole set before entering high school. His ingenuity, however, was not limited to academics; heplayed several musical instruments, participated in sports, sewed, and maintained a garden with his brother.

The variety in DeBakey’s life did not change when he entered Tulane University in 1926. In college, he became an accomplished billiards player and playedsaxophone in the Tulane University band and orchestra. DeBakey had earned enough credits to enter medical school by the time he was a sophomore, but he also wanted a baccalaureate degree. He therefore persuaded the university to let him complete his degree while concurrently attending medical school. Whilestill a medical student, DeBakey created his first invention: a modified roller pump for blood transfusions which did not damage the blood during the procedure.

Twenty years later, this device became a major component of John H. Gibbon’s heart-lung machine, used in the first open-heart surgery. While at Tulane, DeBakey met his mentor, the surgeon Alton Ochsner.

With his medical degree in hand in 1932, DeBakey completed two years of surgical residency training at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. He then went to Europe to study under two prominent surgeons: Rene Leriche of the University ofStrasbourg, France, and Martin Kirschner of the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Upon his return to the United States, DeBakey completed his master’s of science degree at Tulane.

In 1937, DeBakey returned to Tulane to serve on its faculty until, at the beginning of World War II, he volunteered for military service; after serving four years in the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, he was appointed director of the Surgical Consultants’ Division there. His work led to the establishment ofthe mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH units). He also helped organize a specialized medical center system to treat soldiers returning from the war; that system later became the Veterans’ Administration (VA) Medical Center System.

DeBakey also proposed a systematic follow-up of veterans with certain medical problems, which eventually became the VA’s Medical Research Program. He received the Legion of Merit Award in 1945 for his wartime achievements.

In 1946, DeBakey again returned to Tulane as an associate professor of surgery. Two years later, he was named chair of the department of surgery at BaylorUniversity College of Medicine. He remained at Baylor for the rest of his academic career, becoming first the president of the College of Medicine in 1969 and, a decade later, its chancellor.

DeBakey’s record is filled with many firsts, all targeting the diagnosis andtreatment of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). When Debakey beganhis research, the prognosis for patients with arteriosclerosis was poor–individuals with the disease usually died by age fifty.

Now, in large part due to DeBakey’s work, such patients can live well into their eighties. During the1950s, DeBakey was the first to classify arterial disease by location, characteristic, and pattern, making diagnosis much easier. The cause, however, wasstill unknown.

Between 1950 and 1953, DeBakey developed the Dacron and Dacron-velour artificial grafts to replace diseased arteries–a process which is now commonly practiced worldwide. Though DeBakey sewed his first Dacron graft on his wife’s sewing machine, subsequent Dacron artificial arteries were created using a special knitting machine developed by the Philadelphia College of Textiles.

In 1953, DeBakey performed the first successful removal and graft replacement of an aneurysm (a swelling caused by a weakness in a vessel wall) of the thoracicaorta; this procedure, too, is now widely used around the world. Also in 1953, DeBakey performed the first successful removal of a blockage of the main (carotid) artery of the neck, a procedure known as an endarterectomy . This procedure has become the standard method for treating stroke.

Beginning in 1953, DeBakey pioneered four different kinds of operations for the treatment of aneurysms in different areas of the aorta: the removal (resection) and graft replacement of an aneurysm in the downward section of the aortic arch, which curves like a cane handle over the top of the heart; the resection of an aneurysm in the muscle layer of the aorta; the resection and graft replacement of an aneurysm of the upper part of the aorta; and the resection of an aneurysm of the portion of the aorta between the chest and the abdomen.

In 1958, DeBakey also performed the first successful patch-graft angioplasty to reverse the narrowing of an artery caused by an endarterectomy.

By the early 1960s DeBakey had established the standard procedure of therapyin arterial disease, for which he received the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award in 1963. A year later, DeBakey was the first to successfully performan aortocoronary artery bypass , now commonly referred to as “bypass surgery.” Using a large vein removed from the patient’s leg, he re-routed blood around any damaged area between the aorta and coronary arteries, leaving healthy areas intact. Since the 1960s, DeBakey has also tested different artificial- and partial-artificial heart devices, and in 1966 conducted the landmark operation in which the first partial-artificial heart was successfully transplanted.

In 1968, DeBakey was one of the first surgeons to perform heart transplantations; however, rejection problems led him to suspend this practice until 1984, when better anti-rejection drugs (such as cyclosporine) and other technological advances became available.

From 1983 to 1987, DeBakey teamed with Dr. Joseph Melnick and other colleagues to study more closely the causes of arteriosclerosis. They found that the cytomegalovirus (known as CMV), a common virus which causes arterial lesions when first contracted early in life, could lay dormant for years after initialinfection. Those individuals with arteriosclerosis were found to have high levels of antibodies to the virus, and it was suggested that CMV might play arole in the development of arteriosclerosis.

In 1987, DeBakey and his research team announced that high cholesterol levels, long thought to be one of themajor causes of heart disease, were in fact not related to how quickly arteries became blocked. In another study, they also showed that while smoking, a high fat diet, and high blood pressure may put an individual at high risk, they do not themselves cause arteriosclerosis.

In order to apply the specialized medical center system to the civilian sector, DeBakey (with the help of federal funding) founded the Cardiovascular Research and Training Center at the Texas Medical Center in the early 1970s. Later, in 1985, Baylor established the DeBakey Heart Center for research and public education in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

While his reputation as a surgeon grew, DeBakey continued teaching, writing research papers, attending medical symposia and consulting governments on different aspects of health care. As a member of the Medical Task Force of the Hoover Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch, DeBakey helped establish the National Library of Medicine in Washington, DC, in the early 1950s.It is now the world’s largest and most prestigious repository of medical archives.

He has served as an advisor to almost every president over the past 50years, works to improve international health standards, and consults for European, Eastern block, and Middle and Far East countries to establish better health care systems. DeBakey has performed almost 50,000 cardiovascular procedures, trained almost 1,000 surgeons, and has written 1,200 medical articles, chapters, books, research papers on surgery, medicine, health, medical research and education, ethics and social issues. He corresponds regularly with manyof his patients, from princes to paupers, is the editor of many professional publications, and holds the rank of colonel in the United States Army Reserves. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees and appointments.

By 1976, DeBakey had trained so many surgeons and physicians that they decided to form the Michael E. DeBakey International Surgical Society, which offersmedical symposia biennially.

His former students describe him as a workaholic, single-minded, focused, and expecting the highest standards of excellencefrom everyone with whom he deals. “He didn’t ask more of anyone else than heasked of himself,” recalled pulmonary and vascular surgeon Daniel Mahaffey inthe Tulanian. Ochsner, DeBakey’s mentor, told the Tulanian, “I’ve never known anyone who works harder and with less apparent strain. His capacity for work is almost unlimited.”

In 1936, DeBakey married Diane Cooper, a Texas native, with whom he had four sons; two became businessmen, one a restaurateur and one an attorney. His wife died of a massive heart attack in 1972; DeBakey, who had been performing cardiac surgery at the time, rushed to his wife’s bedside, but was unable to keep her alive. Two years later, he married Katrin Fehlhaber, a German artist and actor. In 1977, they had a daughter.

At today’s ceremony Debakey will receive an engraved medal with the image of Dr. DeBakey in full hospital scrubs, with a surgery in progress in the background. Inscriptions on the obverse are “Michael E. DeBakey, M.D.,” “Act of Congress” and “2007.”

The medal’s reverse design depicts a human heart placed prominently over a globe representing the universal influence of Dr. DeBakey’s teachings on cardiovascular procedures. A ribbon encircling the heart bears the following quote by Dr. DeBakey: “The pursuit of excellence has been my objective in life.”

United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Don Everhart designed both the obverse and reverse of the Michael DeBakey Congressional Gold Medal.