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April 23, 2004

The DeBakey-Cooley rift

One of the most well-known stories of Houston lore -- yet not discussed publicly much -- is the long-time rift that has existed between two giants of cardiovascular surgery and of Houston's amazing Texas Medical Center, Dr. Michael DeBakey of the DeBakey Heart Institute and the Baylor College of Medicine, and Dr. Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. That rift has resulted in Dr. DeBakey and Dr. Cooley rarely speaking to each other over the past 40 years.

As a result of the major announcement of this past Wednesday that Baylor College of Medicine is changing its primary teaching facility from Methodist Hospital to St. Luke's, Dr. DeBakey (of Baylor) and Dr. Cooley (or St. Luke's) are being forced to speak to each other again, at least to a limited extent. As this Chronicle artice reports, the first meeting occurred yesterday when both Dr. DeBakey and Dr. Cooley attended a meeting in which the historic agreement linking Baylor and St. Luke's was consummated. Cooley, 83, and DeBakey, 95, shook hands and greeted each other, then sat down at a table where institutional leaders signed contracts making St. Luke's the primary teaching hospital for Baylor. As the Chronicle report notes:

The pair's relationship dates back to 1951, when DeBakey offered Cooley a job at Baylor, allowing the Houston native to return home after completing his training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. For the next decade the two would collaborate closely.

Cooley left in 1962 to found the Texas Heart Institute, acknowledging that directly competing with DeBakey in the same hospital became problematic. The two remained friends and were both still on the Baylor faculty, but no longer operated together.

In 1965, DeBakey participated in a federally funded program to design an artificial heart. Within a few years he had a device that some physicians felt was ready for human trials, but DeBakey believed it needed more work.

Then, to international acclaim in 1969, Cooley performed the first artificial heart implant in the chest of 47-year-old Haskell Karp, a dying heart surgery patient. Karp lived with the heart in his chest 65 hours before dying shortly after a heart transplant.

But Cooley's notoriety was quickly tarnished after DeBakey said the heart was identical to one under development in the Baylor labs, and that Cooley had used it without permission.

Cooley said he and Dr. Domingo Liotta, who also designed artificial hearts in DeBakey's lab, had built the heart privately, and that he had no choice but to use the heart because the patient's life was in jeopardy.

In a 2004 interview, Methodist heart surgeon Mike Reardon said the episode "stole DeBakey's shot at a Nobel Prize. What Mike needed was one crowning event to make him a candidate. And that was going to be the artificial heart."

After the incident the American College of Surgeons voted to censure Cooley and, amid a dispute with the trustees of Baylor, Cooley resigned from the institution. DeBakey changed his focus and decided funds would be better spent developing pumps to assist failing hearts. Such devices became the mainstream treatment for patients with failing hearts.

Posted by Tom at April 23, 2004 7:44 AM |

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