I am currently reading Michael Crichton’s book, “A Case of Need”, and in it one of the main characters, a cardiac surgeon, states that he did his training in the prestigious hospitals in Boston, Massachusetts, including his thoracic, up until his cardiac training which he did “in Houston”. That city was a fantastic site in which to be attending medical school in the 1970s as I did at Baylor.
Houston, Texas was the mecca for cardiac surgery with the two most prominent heart surgeons of all time competing in hospitals there. Dr. Denton Cooley was at the St. Luke’s Hospital and Dr. Michael DeBakey was located at the Methodist Hospital right next door. Their photographs were paired on the cover of “Life” magazine April 10, 1970 featuring an article on “A Bitter Feud: Two great heart surgeons at war over the human heart”.
Dr. Christian Barnard had just completed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa, and was received as a celebrity in Houston. I was thrilled to obtain his autograph.
I once rode up the elevator at Methodist with Dr. DeBakey and I asked him how much sleep he usually got per night. He said, “about 4 hours”. I also asked him what he usually had for breakfast, and he replied, “a candy bar”. He was truly a genius and among his inventions was the DeBakey Roller Pump, a machine which still provides for the circulation and oxygenation of the blood while a patient’s heart is stopped, without damaging the blood cells.
At Baylor College of Medicine on April 26, 1968 I wrote in my journal, “We did a thoracotomy [opening of the chest on a dog] in cardiovascular lab today. I did the cutting and we had practically a bloodless operation!” How do I know what day that was? I just read it in my journal, which I kept daily from January 1, 1963 (my senior year of high school at NHS) on through 1987. That’s right, I kept a daily diary through college at JBU, and daily through medical school at Baylor, on through 3 years in the Air Force, and beyond!
I was interested enough in surgery to spend an entire summer working with a cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. DeBakey’s first resident, Dr. George Morris. We were joined by Dr. George Reul from Milwaukee, who taught us how to do the first heart bypasses in Houston! My job was to tie off all of the branches of the length of saphenous vein that we had removed from the patient’s thigh, so that it could be used as the new artery by-passing the narrowed heart vessel.
I also got to assist Houston’s most prominent pediatric heart surgeon, Dr. J. Frank Harberg. After I got to sew up after the removal of a lipoma, Dr. Harberg said to me, “Not bad for a ‘peedriatrician'”. That made my day.
I truly think that I would have been a really good surgeon, as I was able to concentrate my thoughts to where the end of the scissors or needle was. And I practiced Dr. Morris’ favorite maxim, “gentleness is next to cleanliness”. And I did get practice sewing in the ER of Ben Taub, the large county hospital where we worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off for a month. We saw many members of the local “knife and gun club”. I just did not want to stand still for hours at a time, as my ankles and back complained!
It is amazing what can be done for our hearts now, not only from the use of medicines, but new surgical techniques as well. We all need to take good care of our own hearts by not smoking, by trying to eat mostly healthy foods, and exercising.
Those are my heart-felt thoughts to you,