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King of hearts

Dr. Denton Cooley tells all — DeBakey heart feud revelations included — in his just-published memoir

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Dr. Denton Cooley signs his memoir for Mayor Annise Parker at a River Oaks Bookstore book signing. Photo by Ken Hoge/Texas Heart Institute
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Establishing the Texas Heart Institute is one of Denton Cooley's proudest achievements. Courtesy of Texas Heart Institute
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Dr. Denton Cooley's reconciliation with Dr. Michael DeBakey, right, is one of the more revealing parts of the book. Photo courtesy of © Texas Heart Institute
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Dr. Denton Cooley at the height of his career as a world-renowned heart surgeon. Photo courtesy of © Texas Heart Institute
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100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon's Memoir Courtesy photo
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Few, if any, medical figures have made such a mark for the city of Houston as internationally-renowned heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley, who broke ground with the world's first artificial heart implantation in 1969 and continued as a major medical innovator throughout his long career as one of the world's leading cardiovascular surgeons.

That astounding lifetime of accomplishment, interwoven with tales of early Houston and of the Texas Medical Center, is chronicled in Cooley's memoir, 100,000 Hearts (University of Texas Press, $29.95).

Impetus for the book was generated by a personal milestone — Cooley's 90th birthday. "I decided that if I was going to do it, I had better get started," he said the day after a wildly successful book signing party at River Oaks Bookstore. More than 800 copies were sold, at least one-third of those to former patients.

 "I didn't steal anything," Cooley recalled. "But he made it seem like that." 

Motivation for writing it was twofold, he explained, to provide a family history for his children and, perhaps more importantly, "to set the record straight about my relations with Michael DeBakey."

In his memoir Cooley covers it all from his young life in Houston through his stellar career as one of the world's leading heart surgeons. 

His side of the story

Sitting in his office, an organized jumble of memorabilia, books and papers, in the Texas Heart Institute, Cooley recalled the rift with DeBakey that began in 1969 when Cooley implanted the world's first artificial heart into a human being.

DeBakey was stung and accused Cooley of stealing the artificial heart from his laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in order to be the first to implant the device.

"I didn't steal anything," Cooley recalled. "But he made it seem like that. He organized the whole sort of attack on me with the aid of his two sisters and his publicists."

The verbal sparring became what some have called medicine's most famous and enduring feud. The men did not speak for 40 years.

In 2007, the two famed surgeons reconciled and Cooley recalled that "it was very comforting to me" to make peace. The entire process that began with Cooley stopping by the DeBakey residence one night on the way home from THI is detailed in the book. 

It took a cardiovascular team

100,000 Hearts, written very much in Cooley's voice, covers the ground-breaking surgeries including his first heart transplant, performed in 1968. The title is derived from the number of surgeries that Cooley, now 91, and his team had performed up until the time of his retirement five years ago.

 "One of my most important contributions to society was establishing the Texas Heart Institute . . ." 

"I think, looking back on the history of cardiovascular surgery, a few of us were privileged to be innovators and discoverers. I'm not sure that the present generation will have that opportunity because we were not only able to show that the heart could be operated upon like any other organ in the body but that it could be replaced finally by a mechanical device," he reflected, adding, "It sounds like something Jules Verne would have suggested."

The Texas Heart Institute

Beyond the groundbreaking surgeries, Cooley said that he is most proud of founding the Texas Heart Institute. "One of my most important contributions to society was establishing the Texas Heart Institute and now having it recognized as one of the top four institutions for hospitals in cardiovascular medicine and surgery," he said. THI will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.

"I wanted to let the world know that we were focused on something other than just patient care but also on research and education in the field of cardiovascular medicine and surgery. At that time, in 1962, our program at St. Luke's and Texas Children's Hospital was the largest cardiac surgical program in the world."

Family matters

Even at his advanced age (though he seems much younger), Cooley goes to his THI office each morning before 8 and remains until 5 in the afternoon, admitting to a "postprandial nap" he takes while sitting in his desk chair. He continues to play golf though he says that it's more challenging each day.

He attributes his good health not only to a lucky gene pool but also to personal habits. "I have been very moderate in my self-abuse," he quipped. "I don't smoke. I don't use alcohol excessively and I maintian an active lifestyle with exercise and sports."

He also credits his close family, starting with his wife Louise, with his richly-lived life. "I have an unusually good and happy family with five daughters (one deceased), 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren within the last year."

  "I think that medicine is still the most noble profession in society." 

Family life is covered openly in the book including the suicide of one daughter, Cooley's bankruptcy ordeal and other, more pleasant milestones. A photo gallery of high times and celebrity engagements is an entertaining counterpoint to the medical illustrations that help illuminate the technical aspects of the surgeries described.

An eye to the future

Asked for his view on the current state of health care in the U.S., Cooley responded, "We're going through a period of confusion now with how do we deliver basic health or treatments, particularly to the underprivileged, and then how can the broad spectrum of procedures be made available to every individual, some of which are excessively expensive."

Despite the uncertainty of the medical profession, Cooley believes that those seeking a medical career should not be discouraged. "I think that medicine is still the most noble profession in society. And if an individual enters their training period, not with the idea of making a lot of money, but in making a contribution to mankind, in earning satisfaction by controlling disease and so forth, these are the sort of things that are far more important than money."

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