Pioneering heart surgeon Denton Cooley dies at age 96

Cooley was 'arguably the most gifted heart surgeon of his time'

Denton Cooley, who founded the Texas Heart Institute (THI) and was the first person to implant an artificial heart, passed away on Friday at the age of 96.

Cooley was "arguably the most gifted heart surgeon of his time," Eric Berger and Todd Ackerman wrote for the Houston Chronicle. He performed approximately 65,000 open-heart surgeries at THI over 40 years, and his team at one point was performing 10 percent of all open-heart surgeries in the United States.

James Willerson, who replaced Cooley as THI's president, said, "In many people's opinions, including mine, he is the finest heart surgeon to ever live. He was the most rapid. Had the finest hands. His knowledge, his commitment to help people." Cooley received several accolades over his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation's highest civilian honor—from former President Reagan and the National Medal of Technology from former President Clinton.

A life full of accomplishments

During his postgraduate training, Cooley in 1944 assisted with the first so-called "blue baby" operation, designed to treat an infant with a congenital heart problem that starves the blood of oxygen. "This was, in many ways, the dawn of heart surgery," according to the Chronicle.

Modern Healthcare inducts Cooley into its Hall of Fame

Cooley began working at Baylor College of Medicine in 1951. When Cooley began his medical career, the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive during heart surgery was much less advanced than today's devices and gave surgeons as few as 40 minutes to operate.  Cooley operated with such skill that he showed procedures such as bypasses, which were rare at the time, could be safe to perform.

The Chronicle reports that Cooley "was among a small group of doctors who ushered heart surgery from a niche field into mainstream medicine." Charles Fraser, cardiac surgeon-in-chief at Texas Children's Hospital, said, "It cannot be overstated how extraordinary this was. Just the whole notion of operating inside the heart was entirely radical."

Cooley also developed a version of the heart-lung machine that was primed with sugar solution instead of blood, which reduced the risk of infections such as hepatitis B and made it possible to perform open-heart surgery on Jehovah's Witnesses and other patients whose religious beliefs prevent them from receiving another individual's blood.

A controversial surgery

Cooley left Baylor to found THI in 1962, and he later performed two particularly noteworthy heart surgeries. In 1968, he performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States, and in 1969 he became the first person to implant an artificial heart into a patient.

It was the latter procedure that was in part responsible for landing him on the cover of Life magazine over his disagreement with mentor-turned-rival Michael DeBakey of Baylor. DeBakey was upset that Cooley had not received or requested approval to implant the artificial heart, and feared that using it could jeopardize federal research funding, as the patient died shortly after the procedure.

Cooley argued the patient was certain to die without the artificial heart. "If you are a ship out in the ocean and someone throws you a life preserver, you don't look at it to see if it has been approved by the federal government," he told the New York Times in an interview for his obituary.
DeBakey and Cooley feuded for years but reconciled in 2007, a year before DeBakey passed away at age 99.

Cooley stopped performing surgery at age 87, although he never retired and remained active at THI. He last went to work on Monday, THI said.

He is survived by four daughters, 16 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren (Berger/Ackerman, Houston Chronicle, 11/18; Altman, New York Times, 11/18; Lozano, AP/ABC News, 11/18).

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