Houston's Dr. Cooley Recalls Historic Surgical "Firsts"

When Cooley was starting out in the 1950s, there were no heart-lung bypass machines. Surgeons couldn’t stop the heart or open it up to do delicate work. Cooley says he had to learn how to work around a beating heart.

“It was all by sort of digital feel. We could put a finger into the obstructed valve, put an instrument in and guide it into place, but the heart was still beating and providing circulation. You had to be very careful that you didn’t have some tear in the heart.”

Cooley didn’t invent the heart-lung machine, but he took a trip to Minnesota to see the first working models.

Back in Houston, he built his own version and made small improvements. The year was 1956.  Cooley was still testing it on dogs when he heard about a desperate case at St. Joseph’s Hospital.         

“His cardiologist called and said the man had a massive heart attack and it had ruptured the septum or the partition between the ventricles and he didn’t think the patient was going to live more than 24 hours unless something was done to repair it.”

The 49-year-old was rushed over to the medical center. Cooley and his team used the heart-lung machine. They stopped the man’s heart for 25 minutes, then restarted it after making the repair.

“He did have another heart attack about six weeks later and died. But, in the meantime, I was able to convince some of my cardiology associates that we were ready for the open- heart era.”

These days, experimental techniques must be approved by special review boards. But Cooley and his colleagues had a lot more freedom back then.

“It was our own judgment and conscience which determined what we were going to do. In those days, we did not have to seek approval. Maybe we had some critics afterward.”

One of his biggest critics was Dr. Michael E. Debakey at Methodist. DeBakey accused Cooley of stealing the design for the first artificial heart from his lab.

Cooley book coverIn the book, Cooley maintains he built his own version. But he acknowledges that competition and ambition fueled both the rivalry and the development of new techniques.

“Well, there’s no question a surgeon had to be sort of an aggressive personality and willing to take chances — not only with the patient’s life, but with his own reputation. I think in many respects, Dr. DeBakey and I were similar.”

The memoir is called 100,000 Hearts and refers to the number of open-heart surgeries Cooley performed or supervised during his career.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.  

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