Meet the Surgical Pioneer Who Literally Fixed Broken Hearts

As a pioneering surgeon and inventor, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey has helped millions suffering from heart disease. Though he gave up the operating room almost 10 years ago, DeBakey, at age 99, still goes to work every day.

"I started operating when I was a resident of surgery getting my training shortly after I graduated from medical school, which was in '32," he said. "I think I did the last surgery when I was 90."

In 1908, the year he was born, life expectancy was 51 years. How did he better his odds by almost one hundred percent?

"You know, I'm often asked that question. ... I have to give credit to providence," he said.


Whether it was providence, good genes or living right, DeBakey has put his many years to good use. During World War II, he developed mobile army surgical hospitals, or MASH units. He performed the first successful open-heart surgery, one of the first successful heart transplants, pioneered heart-bypass surgery, and designed a way to fix aortic aneurysms, using a polyester sleeve -- sewing the first one himself.

"My mother was an expert at sewing, so she taught me to sew," he said. "Sewing became kind of a hobby with me. You do something with your hands, something that's useful."

Dr. Craig Smith of New York-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital, who is one of the country's leading heart surgeons and who operated on former President Clinton, said, "Dr. DeBakey's name is still on the instruments we use every day, on instruments that I used this morning."

As the godfather of cardiovascular surgery, DeBakey was in great demand. At age 88, he flew to Moscow to operate on Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

"It was very gratifying to see that his heart was functioning so well," DeBakey said at a news conference after Yeltsin's coronary bypass in 1996.

DeBakey has had his share of celebrity patients, from Guy Lombardo to the duke of Windsor, who call him "the maestro."

In 1969, DeBakey received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. This week, he was back in Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

"Recipients of this medal from the world of science are few," President Bush said. "But they are iconic. They include Thomas Edison, Walter Reed and Jonas Salk. Today, we gather to recognize that Dr. DeBakey belongs among them."

DeBakey said that "receiving this award my cup runneth over.

"Among the many awards I have received, I must say that I treasure this one the highest. I am deeply grateful for the Congressional Gold Medal because of its meaning," he said. "I am very proud of being a citizen of the United States. I got that prize from my father and mother, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. It is the greatest country in this world for individuals who had ambition to do better."

Alice Maggin contributed to this report.