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If you like Denton Cooley's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Keith Black,
Benjamin Carson,
Paul Farmer,
Judah Folkman,
Willem Kolff and
Thomas Starzl

Denton Cooley's recommended reading: Miss Susie Slagle's

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Denton Cooley in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

Related Links:
Texas Heart Institute

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Denton Cooley
Denton Cooley
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Denton Cooley Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

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  Denton Cooley

Dr. Cooley, were there any teachers who particularly inspired you while you were growing up?

Denton Cooley: Many teachers influenced me. I especially remember my English teacher, in the seventh and eighth grade, who was so intent upon learning grammar.

I think that one of the things that's helped me so much in my life -- I've done some writing, you know -- but grammar has always come easy for me since I got that early grounding from a little, attractive teacher in the seventh and eighth grade named Miss Wineheimer. She taught us how to diagram sentences, and taught us the proper way to write. We never were forced to be real strong in composition, but in construction, it was always taught us that we should understand grammar. It disturbs me greatly nowadays when I hear people who are considered to be intelligent, or even intellectual, who can slaughter English grammar. You know, simple little things like using the pronoun "I" when you should be saying "me." And people always think it sounds better to use the first person singular, "I" instead of "me" as the object of a preposition, and so on. All of those slights indicate to me an inadequate educational background.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

That's interesting, because we don't think about surgeons needing to write. But obviously, you've written a tremendous amount of articles, and that is an important aspect of getting ahead in the field, isn't it?

Denton Cooley: Oh yes. Writing is very important. And even in surgery, whether you're an academician or a clinical practitioner, you have to "publish or perish." I've participated in the writing of more than 1000 scientific articles. I've written several textbooks myself, and have contributed numerous chapters to other major textbooks. Writing has been a great asset to me throughout my life.

Do you enjoy writing?

Denton Cooley: I do and I don't. Sometimes it's a real chore. You have to discipline yourself. Sometimes I have something I want and need to write, but there are so many interruptions, the only time to I have to do it is them I've set aside for recreation. It takes discipline. Sometimes I have to write in the quiet hours between nine and midnight, or even later. That takes medicine.

Other than teachers, was there a particular person you emulated, or a particular doctor who inspired you?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: The man who inspired me most, I think, was Dr. Alfred Blalock, who was professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. He was a rather simple man with a burning curiosity. It was through his curiosity that he made many real contributions to medical science. I didn't think he was an especially brilliant man, I just admired him for his curiosity, and for his perseverance. Dr. Blalock really inspired me more than any other person.

Was he a nice person to be with?

Denton Cooley: A very nice man. He was very humble and honest. In the operating room, he could be quite difficult. I never felt that he was entirely comfortable in the operating room. Outside of the operating room, however, he was entirely fair with his junior associates, and he inspired a spirit of harmony in the whole system. That's something I've tried to emulate in my own program.

Dr. DeBakey, who were the people who were important to you growing up?

Michael DeBakey: Just my father and mother. They had a great impact. My father was a strict disciplinarian, and besides being very strict, it was obvious that he loved us, because he gave us anything we wanted. He bought a second hand car, an old Studebaker for my brother and me when I was 14 so that we could take the motor apart learn all about the motor. Then we put it together again. My mother was a very compassionate person who taught us compassion.

There was an orphanage in our town, and every Sunday afternoon after church, we would drive out to the orphanage and my mother would bake cookies and bread, and things like that. And in addition to that, she always took some clothes out there, especially clothes that we had outgrown. And on one occasion, there was a cap that I liked very much, that I noticed that she had put in the box that she was taking out there. And I complained about it, you see, and I said, "No, I don't want you to give them that cap." And she said, "You've got a new one. And you don't need this old cap." And she made me realize that there were children there that were not as secure economically, were not as well off as I was. And that I ought to share with them.

So I learned to see that early in life.

Dr. DeBakey, it's been written about you that you're a perfectionist.

Michael DeBakey: Yes. I think I learned that from my parents too. My father was always pointing out to us that if a thing was worth doing, you should do it as well as you possibly can. So, he expected us to make one hundred on everything. It was done in a stimulating way, so we didn't rebel against any of it. We didn't have to. We knew he loved us, and we knew they would give us everything..

All through my formal education, both in high school and college, I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to get one hundred in everything. And I came close to it. Not all the time. One occasion, for example, I remember in freshman math at college. I thought I was pretty good in math, I never made less than one hundred. And when the grades came out the first semester, I had an 80, and I was nearly shocked. So I decided I would go and see the professor, who was a brilliant mathematician too. And there were only about ten or 15 in that class, so when I went to see him to complain about it, more to ask him, you know, what did I do wrong, and so on. He said, "I don't know why you are complaining. You are the only one that passed."

Dr. DeBakey, besides your parents, who influenced you to be what you have become?

Michael DeBakey: Dr. Alton Ochsner certainly was, from a surgical standpoint, my mentor, and the one who influenced me more than anyone else. He was also, like my father, a very strict disciplinarian, and a perfectionist. I liked the way he did things, even though he made you toe the mark. He was almost like a father to me. Took me under his wing, and helped me in every possible way, especially in the research laboratory. He was a brilliant researcher himself. I learned a great deal from him, in terms of how you develop yourself, how you conduct yourself, and the importance of experience and the importance of doing things until you do it perfectly. He had a great influence on me. I am really indebted to his memory, for what he did for me.

Dr. Cooley, obviously a surgeon needs highly developed motor skills. Were your skills apparent early on?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: Perhaps so. I've always thought that my exposure to competitive sports helped me a great deal in the operating room. It teaches you endurance, and it teaches you how to cope with defeat, and with complications of all sort. I think I'm a well-coordinated person, more than average, and I think that came through my interest in sports, and athletics.

On the other hand, you can injure your hands playing basketball. Did that ever occur to you?

Denton Cooley: Yes, and I have injured my hands playing basketball. I've dislocated fingers, I suffered a severe fracture of my wrist playing tennis four or five years ago, but I've recovered from that, with some handicap. You can injure yourself, but those things don't enter your mind when you are involved in athletics.

In basketball especially, you're always thinking on your feet and adapting.

Denton Cooley: That's true. You have to make decisions promptly, and that's true in the operating room as well. You don't have 12 or 24 hours to make up your mind to do something. In the operating room, you have to make a judgment, a decision, and act on it.

How old were you when you first decided to become a doctor, and what drew you to that profession?

Denton Cooley: I sort of got in by the side door. My father was anxious for me to become a dentist and take over his practice. When I went to the University of Texas, I planned to become a dentist. Then I had an experience which, I think, changed everything.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Texas. I was invited to visit a friend down in San Antonio, who was an intern at the time, working at a municipal hospital there. And he asked me to come over and join him on a Saturday night when he was working in the emergency room. And he had all of these patients there who were all beat up, cut up, or so on, in fights and so on. And he offered me the opportunity to sew up some wounds, which I had never done. And sure enough, I did that, and I enjoyed it, enjoyed the evening. It inspired me, and right then I decided that I would go on into medicine rather than into dentistry. So here I am.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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