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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: 4 / 9)

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

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  Denton Cooley

Did you ever have a shaky stomach, having to deal with the sight of blood? Or were you always very cool about it?

Denton Cooley: The sight of blood never made me queasy. Before my first major operation I felt a little uneasy and insecure, but once I began the operation, I regained my self confidence. Since then I've been very poised in surgery, but even today I have concerns about some of the major, more difficult operative procedures. Sometimes I have a difficult time sleeping the night before, or sleeping the night after, if I think I may not have made the right decisions during the procedure. There is never a feeling of complete self-assurance in some of these difficult cases.

I can imagine. You're world famous for being able to do operations that no one else can do. As you began to specialize in surgery, how did you hone your surgical skills? I read that you actually practiced in a match box. Can you tell us some of your secrets?

Denton Cooley: That is really an exaggeration, which shows how myths grow.

I did, like most young surgeons, practice tying surgical knots. You know, you take some string to your room at night, and you practice tying knots with one hand, or your left hand, and doing that sort of thing. And just thinking about surgery. And, you know, practicing. Get a scalpel, and practice just, say, cutting a piece of meat or something like that. You sort of learn how you want to hold your fingers, and that sort of thing, and try to become graceful when you operate. Because it's sort of that gracefulness and poise at the operating table that inspires others to think that you are an accomplished surgeon. I watched a number of surgeons in this country and abroad, and tried to see what it was about their technique that made them successful, and made them masters of the art.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Isn't some of that innate talent?

Denton Cooley: I think it probably is, yes. It's true in so many other aspects of life. Some people can just play a violin and others can do it well. The talent seems to be instinctive. It's the same thing if you watch a real accomplished golfer. You know that he has a God-given talent. Perhaps I have some of that in my field. I hope so.

Even a great violinist has to practice a lot to really accomplish something, and I gather that you, too, have worked very hard.

Denton Cooley: Yes, I have. I don't think many people have worked harder at being a surgeon than I have. Maybe there is something back there that qualifies me to do what I am doing today. I think that's true of a great violinist, a great golfer, a great sportsman, and others who find a niche in life that suits them.

I think a lot of kids have the attitude that if you've got talent, you don't really need the hard work. But there is a famous quote by Edison, that "genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Would you go along with that?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: I think so. I really do. With your own effort, you can improve yourself, but people find they can't improve beyond a certain point. I like to play golf, but I know that no matter how much I practice, I will never get above a certain level. I think that's also true of surgery. Some people are born with the gifts and the mind for surgery, and they may go on to great heights. Others may try and try, only to reach a certain plateau. I'm very fortunate, I think, to have found a profession that seems suited, not only for my personality and level of intelligence, but also for my physical abilities.

As hard as the work is, I gather that for you, it's also a pleasure.

Denton Cooley: There is a great deal of satisfaction in being a surgeon. You have instant evidence of success and accomplishment. In other medical specialties, you may not find such an instant reward.

On the other hand, you also have more dramatic failures.

Denton Cooley: Yes indeed, you do. The risk of failure is always there. But as I say, it's an exhilarating feeling to walk away from a successful operation. You know you've done something great, and the patient is going to do extremely well. There's a feeling of accomplishment that you may not get in other medical specialties.

You're dealing with life and death situations on a daily basis.

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: Yes. There is something especially nice when you can do something with your hands to the patient. I've always told my residents this. This is why people go to osteopathic doctors and chiropractors. These practitioners may not use orthodox treatment methods, but they are doing something to the patient, and patients get a psychological boost from the fact that something is actually being done to them. I believe we should touch or manipulate patients in some way. We can learn from some of those specialties that make patients feel like something has been done for them.

We are taught in orthodox medicine not to have a great deal of respect for some of those manipulative types of physicians. Nevertheless, I think they are doing a lot of good for the patient, which sometimes we don't have the opportunity to do as medical doctors. We might prescribe some pills to take care of a back spasm. But the chiropractor or the osteopathic doctor is the one that is going in to do some manipulation, and also give some pills, and the patients leave thinking that something special has been done for them.

Dr. Cooley, going back to the beginning of your career, how did your parents react to your choice of profession?

Denton Cooley: I think they were proud of it. Medicine is perhaps the noblest of all professions. My dad may have been a little disappointed because I didn't join him in his dental practice, but at the same time, I'm sure my parents were very proud of my choice.

Did they live to see some of your great success?

Denton Cooley: Yes, they did. My mother only died 10 years ago. My father, unfortunately, died about 20 years ago. But he did have a chance to see some of the things that I was doing. I'm sure that he took a great deal of pride in my career.

You obviously have tremendous drive. Where does that come from? Did your parents instill that in you?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: I don't know. I think I was born with it. I had a brother who was a lot less driven. Somehow or another, I developed that drive. I always took a great deal of personal satisfaction in excelling. As I told you, I was a straight "A" student all through grade school, university and medical school. I don't know how you explain drive, but I enjoy accomplishment, and I enjoy being at the top. I wasn't brilliant. I studied hard in school. I budgeted my time, and tried to make a good record, and I benefited from that philosophy throughout my life. I would encourage any young person who has some goal in life to devote himself entirely to his own development and education. Unless you are very fortunate or lucky, you won't get to the very top unless you apply yourself completely.

Another important prerequisite of pursuing a career in surgery, obviously, is confidence. I wonder if that was something that you always enjoyed: a sense of confidence about yourself.

Denton Cooley: I think I've had self-confidence ever since I got over the shyness of my teenage years. I've come to believe that maybe I am somewhat better than average. When new developments are made, I believe I'm the one who should be making them. I've had more experience as a heart surgeon than anyone else in the world. It was only appropriate that I do the first successful heart transplantation, put in the first artificial heart, et cetera. I think that it was not only my right, but my duty to do so. That's what motivated me do new things.

Did you ever doubt your abilities along the way?

Denton Cooley: I never doubted my abilities as a surgeon. I may have doubted my ability as a thinker. I've had some misgiving. As I said before, I don't consider myself a highly intellectual or brilliant person. I've always thought the really brilliant people go into sciences such as physics, electronics, and computer engineering. Many people who consider themselves average are accomplished contract bridge players. That's an area where I can't compete. Being an excellent bridge player requires a level of skill and intelligence that I don't think I have. I think I can do well in my profession because I do have a certain amount of imagination, and the projects that I get involved with don't take that type of intelligence. My work takes clear thinking and the ability to anticipate problems. This I can do well.

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This page last revised on Sep 29, 2010 18:05 EDT
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