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How Surgeon to Stars Michael DeBakey Saves Lives with Shuttle Technology

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

In December of 2005, the renowned cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey, experienced excruciating heart pain caused by a weakened aorta that had torn on the inside. In the medical world, this condition is known as a "dissecting aortic aneurysm". Yet, just a few months later in March 2006, he found himself in the process of recovery thanks to a surgical procedure he had himself developed and successfully performed for the first time in 1952 when he became the first American to successfully repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

The fact that an invention had come full circle to save the life of its own inventor is truly remarkable and worthy of celebration.

That's why, this month, I am honoring and celebrating the legacy of the late Dr. Michael DeBakey - a true visionary who dedicated his life to advancing medical science and improving the lives of countless patients through innovation and excellence in execution.

Heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey smiles after receiving a Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 23, 2008.

Dr. Michael DeBakey's impact on the field of medicine is immeasurable and noteworthy. Throughout his career, this visionary revolutionized the way that cardiovascular surgery was diagnosed and treated, and made significant contributions to modern medicine that have had a profound impact on the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Like many of us, Michael DeBakey was an American child of humble beginnings born to immigrants in 1908 in the Deep South of Louisiana. His father was a businessman and his mother a seamstress. And like my own father did for me, his parents instilled in him and his siblings a sheer love for learning as well as the capacity to build and work with their hands.

While Michael DeBakey was certainly a cardiovascular surgeon, he was also an inventor of technology.

Dr. Michael DeBakey developed his first famous innovation while still in the Tulane School of Medicine in 1928 after completing his pre-medical courses in just two years at Tulane University. He had become acutely aware of the risks associated with existing devices used to pump blood during heart surgeries. At the time, these devices were typically centrifugal or roller pumps that used metal blades to move the blood through the body. These pumps posed a significant risk to patients because the blades could damage blood cells and cause complications such as hemolysis, a condition in which red blood cells break down and release their contents into the bloodstream. Additionally, the metal blades could cause clotting or blockages in the blood vessels, leading to further complications.

Determined to develop a safer and more effective alternative, he began researching and experimenting with various designs. In 1932, he successfully created the revolutionary "roller pump" which replaced the dangerous metal blades of existing pumps with soft rollers. The risk of damaging blood cells was greatly reduced and the safety of heart procedures was vastly improved.

The impact of Dr. DeBakey's innovation of the roller pump cannot be overstated. The roller pump has transformed the field of cardiovascular surgery and has become the gold standard for all pumps used in heart surgeries. It has saved countless lives and provided a more effective and safer method of pumping blood during these procedures. From cardiac bypass surgery to helping the heart and lung function while recovering from serious illness, to hemodialysis which filters wastes from your blood, the roller pump has become an essential tool for medical professionals around the globe.

Following his invention of the heart roller pump, as World War Two unfolded, Dr. DeBakey served in the Surgical Consultants Division of the Army Surgeon General's Office. Michael DeBakey's military service is a testament to his unwavering commitment to improving the lives of others. He saw firsthand the challenges of providing quality medical care to soldiers on the battlefield. With his sharp mind and innovative spirit, he set out to create a solution that would save lives and revolutionize military medicine. He pioneered the use of auxiliary surgery groups (ASGs), which allowed for small mobile units to provide surgical care closer to the front lines.

In the Allied invasion of Normandy, ASGs supported multiple armies, proving their effectiveness and ultimately leading to the creation of Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) during the Korean War. Dr. DeBakey's vision of a more mobile and efficient system of medical care significantly reduced the post-evacuation mortality of wounded soldiers. His contributions to military medicine spanned over three decades, and he continued to serve as a consultant to the Surgeon General's office during the Vietnam War.

After the end of World War II, Michael DeBakey continued to pursue his passion for medicine and innovation by joining the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, in 1948.

Dr Michael DeBakey showing artificial heart at a news briefing in Houston, 1/5/1971. Courtesy: CSU Archives / Everett Collection

During this time, he became more and more renowned with a series of firsts in the field of medicine:

  • In 1952, Dr. DeBakey and his colleague Dr. Cooley performed the first successful aortic aneurysm repair using a cadaver graft. DeBakey later experimented with various materials for grafts, discovering Dacron as a superior alternative to nylon. Using his mother's sewing techniques and his wife's sewing machine, he created the first functional Dacron grafts, revolutionizing vascular surgery.

Prototype of the artificial heart developed by Dr Michael DeBakey (left) and his associate, Dr George C Morris, Jr (right), Akron, Ohio, 1966.

This life-saving procedure was the one used on DeBakey himself in 2006.

  • In 1964, Dr. DeBakey and his team accomplished the first successful coronary artery bypass using a transplanted leg vein to reroute blood beyond the blocked coronary arteries. This surgery has since become a common procedure, with over 500,000 people undergoing the operation each year.

  • In 1966, Dr.DeBakey performed the first successful implantation of a ventricular assist device (VAD) that he had developed - a heart pump that effectively bypassed the left ventricle of the heart, the chamber that does the pumping.

  • In 1968, Dr. Michael DeBakey and his team made medical history by performing the first successful heart transplant in the United States. The patient, a 47-year-old man, had been suffering from heart failure for several years and had exhausted all other treatment options. The patient received the heart of a deceased donor. The surgery was risky and had a high chance of failure, but Dr. DeBakey was determined to push the boundaries of what was possible in cardiovascular medicine.

Over the years, Michael DeBakey became one of the most, if not the most, sought after cardiovascular surgeon. He treated a number of high-profile patients, including President Richard Nixon in 1974, who underwent emergency surgery for a severe heart attack. Dr. DeBakey successfully inserted two coronary artery bypass grafts, a procedure that helped to save the President's life. Also in 1974, he performed a quadruple bypass surgery on the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah had been suffering from chest pain and was diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease. Dr. DeBakey performed the complex surgery, which involved grafting four bypasses onto his coronary arteries, allowing him to live for several more years.

Frank Sinatra, the popular American singer, was also one of the many high-profile patients who sought treatment from Michael DeBakey. In 1965, the singer began experiencing chest pain and was diagnosed with atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart. Frank Sinatra underwent a successful triple bypass surgery, which involved rerouting blood around three blocked coronary arteries. After his surgery, Frank Sinatra went on to live a long and productive life, continuing to perform and record music until his death in 1998. Dr. DeBakey's success in treating high-profile patients only added to his reputation as one of the world's leading cardiovascular surgeons.

“I think human beings have an innate desire to help each other. And whether you're in medicine or anything else, if you see someone that you can get a gratification from doing it. In fact, I think that is perhaps the most important, you might say, fabric that holds the society together.” - Dr. Michael DeBakey

By the time I was appointed NASA Administrator, Dr. Michael DeBakey had already become a celebrity professional in the medical community, known to heads of countries, business moguls, and even celebrities. So, naturally, I became a kid when he approached me with a technical problem he wanted my help in solving. I couldn’t believe it.

The famous Dr. Michael DeBakey, surgeon to the stars, wanted my help with problems he had encountered while developing a new even more impactful, miniaturized, safer and efficient version of his continuous flow Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), a mechanical heart pump.

The continuous flow VAD was an incredibly innovative solution that could potentially save the lives of people worldwide who suffer from heart conditions requiring a transplant. While there are tens of thousands of people who need a heart transplant each year, the number of donor hearts available is extremely limited. Fewer than 3,000 heart transplants are performed each year in the United States alone. The VAD would function as a "bridge to heart transplant," pumping blood throughout the body to keep critically ill patients alive until a donor heart became available.

However, Dr. DeBakey and his team of biomedical engineers initially faced two significant challenges while developing the implantable VAD. Friction caused by the high shear flows through the pump led to damaged blood cells. Additionally, stagnant regions in the pump caused dangerous blood clotting, a significant problem with ventricular assist devices.

To address the challenges encountered during the development of the Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), I worked closely with Dr. DeBakey and the NASA CTO to find solutions. We were able to leverage the knowledge and innovation gained through our work designing, developing, and operating the Space Shuttle Main Engines. Our expertise in using supercomputers for simulation, particularly in the field of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) technology. CFD utilizes numerical methods and algorithms to solve and analyze problems involving fluid flows and it is used to simulate fuel flow through the Space Shuttle's main engines. I recommended that we use CFD techniques to analyze blood flow through the VAD to identify potential blood stagnation locations and ensure that blood flow within the pump did not coagulate or create high shear flows. Additionally, I suggested employing experts in surface physics to create a smoother surface finish on the impeller, a worm-like component that helps pump blood without damaging individual blood cells. With the team's input and design improvements, we were able to drastically reduce red blood cell damage and eliminate stagnant regions, thus minimizing the risk of blood clot formation. These modifications allowed Dr. DeBakey to create a high-speed, small, and lightweight VAD based on turbine technology developed for liquid propellant rocket engines.

Dr. Michael DeBakey, right, holds the MicroMed-DeBakey ventricular assist device, a tiny heart-assist pump. With him is one of his heart transplant patients, David Saucier, a NASA Johnson Space Center engineer. They helped develop the idea of using Shuttle fuel pump technology to design the device. Credit: NASA

By 1996, NASA patented the heart pump and licensed it exclusively to MicroMed Technology, Inc., of Houston, Texas. By November 1998, a 56-year-old male became the first patient to receive the “MicroMed DeBakey VAD”.

Years after our collaboration, while I was at an event at the University of Padua in Italy, I received a call from none other than Dr. Michael DeBakey himself. He had exciting news to share with me. He had just done a check in with his first patient to receive the VAD and the patient was completely thriving!

For those who know me, the cross-section of two different disciplines completely excites me. Of course, I am biased to cross-sections when one of the foundational legs is space technology and science. Space technology, when collaboration is encouraged, can significantly impact non-space industries and improve lives through the transfer of advanced solutions. In 1966, memory foam, originally developed by NASA for spacecraft seating, revolutionized various industries such as bedding, sports equipment, and prosthetics. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, spurred advancements in CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) technology, benefiting digital imaging in sectors like medicine and consumer electronics. Additionally, the International Space Station's water purification system, developed in the early 2000s, has been adapted to provide clean drinking water in remote or disaster-stricken areas. These examples highlight the importance of space tech in shaping our modern world.

So naturally, during the process of the development of the VAD it was so exciting and humbling to witness how Dr. Michael DeBakey worked with the brilliant NASA engineers to combine state-of-the-art space and medical technologies to develop something completely new and important to humanity.

However, even more humbling was to witness Dr. DeBakey’s genuine fulfillment in the process of invention and in the subsequent impact on human lives, at around 90 years old after a full life of success, rockstars and fame.

To me, Dr. DeBakey is the embodiment of how I have always believed life should be lived. He was an experimenter, a creator, a lateral thinker and someone who used all those skills to improve the lives of others up until the day he stopped working.

Many people ask me how I could possibly stand working 60-70 hours a week at my age. When I think of Dr. Michael DeBakey and how inspirational my time with him has been to me, I can only think,

“How can I not?”

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