A productive idea for the Dome

astrodome Over the weekend, the Chronicle ran this story about Harris County officials considering an idea to convert the Astrodome into a planetarium and a medical and science education facility. It’s actually a good idea and one that was suggested here months ago. Given the Dome’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center, a county/med center partnership to turn the Dome into the premiere medical/science educational facility in the world makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, the financing of such a project is not going to be easy, particularly in this economic climate. Nevertheless, given the potential benefit to Houston of becoming a leader in medical/science education, hopefully county officials will give this proposal a fair shake. It certainly makes far more sense than the alternative proposal.

Common sense aside, everyone needs to realize that this new proposal could effectively be scuttled by the financial commitments that have already been made in connection with Houston’s previous poor public financing choices. That risk reminds us that such poor utilization of resources ultimately has consequences. It could a harsh irony if Houston’s most well-known landmark is a victim of those bad choices.

A good idea, but . . .

New Picture The Chron’s top-notch Medical Center reporter Todd Ackerman reported yesterday that two venerable Houston academic — Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University — are in preliminary discussions regarding a possible merger (the Chron’s excellent Science reporter Eric Berger also comments here).

This makes sense on many levels. Baylor and Rice are located near each other in the Medical Center area, so sharing faculty members between the two institutions would be a snap from a logistics standpoint. Indeed, the attraction of being able to teach and research at both institutions would be a valuable perk for both schools to attract talented teachers and students. Both schools have excellent academic reputations, so it’s a good match from that standpoint, too.

But Ackerman zeroes in on the main problem with the merger. As usual, it involves money:

Rice is the more affluent of the two institutions. As of June 30, its endowment was $4.6 billion. As of Sept. 30, Baylor’s was $954 million. [.  .  .]

One Rice professor said the key issue from the university’s perspective will be making sure there’s a firewall between Rice’s endowment and Baylor’s.

A "firewall" between the two institutions endowments? Come on, one of the main reasons why the merger makes sense is that Baylor would have access to Rice’s superior capital. The benefit from Rice’s standpoint is the association with a fine medical school that, with access to a better-capitalized endowment, may well propel itself into the best medical school in the country. That is precisely the type of academic excellence that Rice should be pursuing.

Which reminds me of a conversation that I had years ago with a member of the University of Houston Board of Regents. Given the need of Houston and Texas for more Tier 1 research institutions, I observed to this UH regent that I thought it was a good idea for the UH system to merge with the Texas A&M University System.

One one hand, the merger makes sense from UH’s standpoint because it would provide the chronically-undercapitalized UH (endowment about $750 million or so) with access to capital (A&M’s endowment is between $6-7 billion) that is the biggest obstacle in UH’s path to Tier 1 status.

On the other hand, the merger makes sense from A&M’s standpoint because UH would provide A&M with the urban presence that it has always lacked and UH’s central campus in Houston that A&M could use as a carrot for attracting better teachers and students. Moreover, A&M for years has desired a law school and UH would deliver a very good one.

So, I asked the UH regent, such a merger makes sense, doesn’t it?

The UH regent proceeded to give me a half-dozen reasons why the proposed merger would never work, most of which were tied to the fact that he would no longer be a member of an independent university system board if such a merger were consummated.

That is precisely the attitude that has placed Texas behind states such as California and New York in the development of Tier 1 research institutions and all the benefits that such universities provide to the state and its communities. Here’s hoping that similar attitudes don’t scuttle what appears to be a very good idea for Rice, Baylor and Houston.

Dr. Ralph Feigen, R.I.P.

Dr. Feigin In this recent post on the death of Michael DeBakey, I noted that a substantial part of Dr. DeBakey’s legacy was his involvement in the massive importation of talented medical professionals to Houston over the past 60 years. That talent transformed the Texas Medical Center from a sleepy regional medical center into one of the largest and most dynamic medical centers in the world.

Dr. Ralph Feigen, who died at the age of 70 on Thursday,epitomizes the doctors who have been at the center of that transformation.

Drawn to Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine at the age of 40 in 1977, Dr. Feigen spent the rest of his life in Houston cultivating a culture of excellence in research and patient care that turned Texas Children’s into one of the largest and best pediatric hospitals in the world. Dr. Feigen was an excellent teacher, superb clinician and a highly-regarded researcher, but his personal warmth for his patients is what thousands of parents and their children will remember most about this fine man. A large part of Dr. Feigen’s legacy is that Texas Children’s — despite its enormous growth over the past 30 years — still reflects the comfortable warmth of its long-time leader.

Todd Ackerman, the Chronicle’s fine medical reporter, summarizes Dr. Feigen’s enormous impact well (the NY Times obituary is here):

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Dr. Michael DeBakey, R.I.P.

Debakey071208 Dr. Michael DeBakey (previous posts here) died late Friday at the age of 99. One of the most influential men in Houston’s history, Dr. DeBakey was the world-famous cardiovascular surgeon who researched, developed and initially implemented not only a variety of devices that help heart patients, but also such now-common surgical procedures as heart-bypass surgery. Two of the Chronicle’s finest reporters — Science reporter Eric Berger and Texas Medical Center reporter Todd Ackerman — provide this outstanding article on Dr. DeBakey’s remarkable life, and Eric provides an audio file of his 2005 interview of Dr. DeBakey here. The New York Times’ article on Dr. DeBakey’s death is here.

As with my late father, Dr. DeBakey was one of the leaders of a talented generation of post-World War II doctors who embraced the optimistic view of therapeutic intervention in the practice of medicine, which was a fundamental change from the sense of therapeutic powerlessness that was widely taught to doctors by their pre-WWII professors. As noted earlier here and here, that seismic shift in medicine has changed the course of human history.

But the tremendous impact that Dr. DeBakey had on medicine is exceeded by the massive effect that he had on Houston. When Dr. DeBakey accepted the president’s position at Baylor College of Medicine a few years after the end of World War II, the Texas Medical Center was a sleepy regional medical center. Over the next two decades, Dr. DeBakey was one of the key leaders who transformed the Medical Center into one of the largest and best medical centers in the world. Dr. DeBakey was the catalyst who established the culture within the Texas Medical Center of cutting-edge research, productive competition but also widespread collaboration, quality care for patients and good, old-fashioned hard work that attracted the best and brightest physicians, teachers and students from around the world to the Medical Center.

This massive importation of intellectual capital over the last 60 years of Dr. DeBakey’s life generated enormous wealth and benefits for Houston. Today, the medical facilities of the Texas Medical Center are the largest aggregate provider of jobs in the Houston area, even greater than the local jobs provided by the energy industry.

That’s quite a legacy in my book.

The remarkable story of Kevin Everett

Kevin_everett.jpgThree months ago, Kevin Everett, a tight end for the Buffalo Bills who was born and raised in Port Arthur just east of Houston, suffered a serious spinal cord injury during an NFL game. At the time of the injury, there was grave doubt whether Everett would ever walk again.
As this Sports Illustrated article recounts, Everett’s recovery from his serious injury has been nothing short of amazing. One of the interesting aspects of Everett’s recovery is that it may have been fueled by the gutsy call of a 45 year-old orthopedic surgeon on the scene in Buffalo, but it was certainly facilitated by the remarkable rehabilitation services of the Texas Medical Center’s Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (known as “TIRR”) and the inspiring resolve of the 25 year old patient. TIRR is regularly ranked as one of the finest rehabilitation institutions in the U.S. and is one of the many reasons that Houston is among the world’s finest medical centers.

The NY Times on the DeBakey-Cooley rapprochement

DeBakey%20and%20Cooley%20112807.jpgFollowing on this earlier post about Todd Ackerman’s fine piece on the rapprochement between longtime Texas Medical Center rivals, Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley, this New York Times article examines the history of the feud and the recent reconciliation.
The article passes along the following famous anecdote from the investigation into Dr. Cooley’s use of an artificial heart back in the early 1960’s without proper authorization:

Dr. Cooley recalled that a lawyer had once asked him during a trial if he considered himself the best heart surgeon in the world.
ìYes,î he replied.
ìDonít you think thatís being rather immodest?î the lawyer asked.
ìPerhaps,î Dr. Cooley responded. ìBut remember Iím under oath.î

Read the entire article.

A Texas Medical Center giant

feigin.jpgThis Alexis Grant/Chronicle Q&A column interviews one of the truly outstanding physicians who has made the Texas Medical Center one of the most extraordinary medical centers in the world — Dr. Ralph Feigin of Texas Children’s Hospital. Take a moment to review Dr. Feigin’s remarkable biography and the interview, and then take a moment to appreciate this man’s tremendous contribution to pediatric medicine in Houston over the past 30 years. It’s a legacy that will not soon be matched.

The DeBakey-Cooley rapprochement

DeBakey%20and%20Cooley.jpgThe longtime feud and resulting intense competition between Houston cardiovascular surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley was a part of what catapulted Houston’s Texas Medical Center into the upper tier of the world’s great medical centers over the past 40 years.
Now, the Chronicle’s fine Texas Medical Center reporter, Todd Ackerman, reports in this article that the DeBakey-Cooley rift is no more:

It’s considered one of medicine’s best-known feuds: two brilliant and egotistical doctors on the frontiers of cardiovascular surgery, whose falling-out divided a community and became the stuff of legend.
Immortalized in a Life magazine cover story, the rift persisted for decades. Although the competition spurred them to achievements that transformed the Texas Medical Center into the world’s heart treatment center, the former collaborators avoided each other and barely spoke.
But recently, Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley buried the hatchet.
“I’m glad the rivalry may have passed by,” Cooley said on Oct. 27, presenting DeBakey with a lifetime achievement award at a meeting of Cooley’s Cardiovascular Surgical Society. “I hope this is not just a temporary truce or cease-fire (but) … a permanent treaty between us.”
DeBakey, 99, responded that he was glad to be there for two reasons: “One is, I’m alive. And the other, of course, is to get this award. Denton, I am really touched by it.”

Read the entire article.

A job well done

heart%20attack.jpgUniversity of Houston student-athlete and football player Jerrod Butler was stricken by sudden cardiac arrest on Monday during a weightlifting session at the University of Houston. Butler passed out and stopped breathing.
Members of the UH athletic training staff, led by Mike O’Shea and John Houston, immediately revived Butler, performing CPR and using an automatic external defibrillator. Butler was then rushed the short drive to the Methodist Hospital emergency room at the Texas Medical Center, where he was put on a ventilator and placed in the intensive care unit.
On Thursday, Butler was moved out of the ICU and into a regular room.
It’s easy in our busy lives to take professionals such as O’Shea and Houston for granted, but they are the type of dedicated people who make Houston such a special place to live. A tip of the hat to these two fine professionals on a job well done.

Texas’ medical licensing logjam

texas_doctors_comp.jpgThe number of insurance companies offering medical malpractice insurance policies has dramatically increased and malpractice insurance premiums have substantially decreased since the 2003 legislation enacting medical malpractice caps in Texas, but the med mal caps have contributed to at least one unanticipated problem:

. . . about 2,250 license applications await processing at the Texas Medical Board in Austin. The wait could be as long as a year for some of the more experienced doctors because it takes longer to review their records.
The fear is that some doctors will give up on Texas and go elsewhere instead of waiting. A $1.22 million emergency funding request was approved during the last days of Texas legislative session for the Texas Medical Board, which licenses physicians. That is on top of the $18.3 million regular biennial appropriation, said Jane McFarland, the board’s chief of staff.
The board plans to add nine new employees to its 139-member staff, seven of which will help chop away at the backlog of license applications.