Dr. DeBakey: Health model

Dr. Michael DeBakey is Houston’s most famous physician and one of the most reknowned of the post-World War II generation of doctors who changed the way medicine was practiced in the world. But in this Wall Street Journal ($) article, Dr. DeBakey is something entirely different — a model for longevity and good health:

[L]ong a role model for physicians, [Dr. DeBakey] now can serve as a role model for another group: anyone turning the corner on what used to be called old age. In 1965, Dr. DeBakey appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was 56. Almost 40 years to the month later, the 96-year-old remains a player in the field of medicine, his most recent article (“Kismet or assiduity?”) having appeared only last month in the journal Surgery.

Entering the room, Dr. DeBakey looked only slightly older than he did in photographs taken decades ago. Sitting down, he poured himself a cup of coffee with a steady hand. For anyone who wrestles with the health implications of caffeine, this gesture might have borne significance, except that during the two hours we spoke Dr. DeBakey barely took a sip of it. “This will be my only cup of the day,” he says, touting moderation.
His hearing was sharp; I never repeated a question. . .

His personal habits largely parallel what doctors order. He always has been a light eater, and on most days takes only one meal, dinner, often consisting of a salad. “My wife is a great salad maker,” he says. Though he doesn’t take vitamins or engage in what he calls “formal exercise,” he walks from place to place, putters around the garden and chooses stairs over elevators. He is on no medications, doesn’t drink and never smoked. His military uniform still fits him perfectly.

Interestingly, Dr. DeBakey views the key to his longevity and health to be something that the medical profession often characterizes as damaging to health — hard work and stress:

But here is what Dr. DeBakey sees as the real secret to his longevity: work. He rises at five each morning to write in his study for two hours before driving to the hospital at 7:30 a.m., where he stays until 6 p.m. He returns to his library after dinner for an additional two to three hours of reading or writing before going to bed after midnight. He sleeps only four to five hours a night, as he always has.

But isn’t stress harmful? In the Time magazine article of 40 years ago, Dr. DeBakey expressed scorn for the alleged ill effects of stress: “Man was made to work, and work hard. I don’t think it ever hurt anyone,” he said then. Now, that quote elicits a sheepish smile from him. “I was being provocative,” he says.
Although he concedes now that stress can be damaging, he also believes that work is underrated as a health tonic. “What we call stress is sometimes stimulating and can bring out the best features in our makeup,” he says, adding that no vacation spot could ever prove as relaxing for him as did the operating room. “Work can block out the unpleasant things we have to deal with every day. When you concentrate, you are not distracted by the things that are bothering you.”

My anecdotal experience with my late father — Dr. Walter Kirkendall — certainly supports Dr. DeBakey’s views. Walter worked as a professor of medicine at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston literally up to the day he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1991. Although stress arguably played a role in his sudden death, Walter’s work during his final years was a large part of what sustained him, giving him the focus and purpose of a much younger man. Walter would not have wanted to live his life in any other way.
The examples of Walter and Dr. DeBakey remind us that the motivation to excel in what we do is inextricably tied to our will to live.

2 thoughts on “Dr. DeBakey: Health model

  1. Of course, the unstated premise in the anecdotal argument is that I doubt either Dr. DeBakey or your father would have worked so much if they didn’t enjoy what they did.

  2. No question about it, TP. Well-motivated docs in academic medicine such as Dr. DeBakey and my father really love their jobs.
    Although the politics of academic medicine are often internecine, the combination of teaching, research, clinical work, private patients, and professional travel makes academic medicine an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling line of work.
    However, I do think that both Dr. DeBakey and my father could have been just as fulfilled in another field of teaching. The key, I think, is that their good motivation toward their work was tied to the positive effect that they had on their students and patients’ lives.

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