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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: 5 / 9)

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

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  Denton Cooley

Dr. Cooley, was there someone in your early career who gave you a first important break?

Denton Cooley: That's difficult to say. I can think of a few situations where I may have been given a break, even in my athletic career. Once, during a basketball game, the coach could see that we were losing the game. In desperation, he looked down at the end of the bench, and sent me into the game. Sure enough, at that one moment, I excelled. Had I not done well at that one opportunity, I probably would have never made the varsity team. Things like that stick in my mind.

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
My professor of surgery there at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Blalock, picked me out of the entire class and gave me some opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I feel like I've had a rabbit's foot in my pocket, because I had some lucky breaks along the way.

What do you think he saw in you that made him choose you?

Denton Cooley: I don't know. He probably just saw me as someone who was a little different from the rest of the group. I may have been taller, or more athletic than most of my classmates, who were more of the studious type than I was at the time. He was a vigorous man, who liked an active life, and he may have thought that I just might have the abilities to be a good surgeon in the future. This must have been very premature, because I was still just a medical student.

So Blalock gave you an important break.

Denton Cooley: Yes. He gave me the opportunity, and he gave me the encouragement to go forward, and then he provided the inspiration. He was the type of man that I thought I might be too. As I said, he was not in my opinion a brilliant man, but he was a solid thinker, with a good, practical approach to problems, and he made a huge success of this career.

Dr. DeBakey, do you remember the first heart operation that you performed? What went through your mind, when you were doing it for the first time?

Michael DeBakey: You've got to remember, we didn't just suddenly start doing heart operations. We were doing other things around the heart. Finally, when the heart-lung machine came along, we were able to go into the heart. First, you learn what you've got to do in the experimental laboratory. We did literally hundreds of bypass operations on dogs before we did it on a human being. So it's not a first operation in many ways.

Our first bypass operation actually developed as a kind of an accident. We had a patient scheduled for a bypass operation. He was scheduled for what we call an enterectomy, which we had been doing at that time, which was 1964. And because of the nature of the blockage, the plaque was such that we couldn't separate it. We realized that we had to do something else, or else we couldn't get him off the table. So we decided then and there to go ahead and do what we had been doing in dogs, which was about 50 percent successful. We just had to take that chance if we were going to try to save his life. Fortunately, it worked. It became the first successful coronary bypass.

Dr. Cooley, what role has luck played in your career? You mentioned the rabbit's foot.

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: I was able to participate in many new developments in heart surgery when they were not possible for others. I was able to start an open heart program long before any of the other major centers, except for the teams in Minnesota who developed extracorporene circulation and who were real pioneers. I had that opportunity in Houston, because I was the only one qualified to perform heart surgery in this area. I had access to several large hospitals where there were no space restrictions. When things like cardiac transplantation came along, we were ready and poised to do it.

We did the first successful transplant in the United States. Same thing with the artificial heart. I was fortunate to be in an institution where we were developing an artificial heart. The opportunity arose to do it, and I went ahead and did it. It was somewhat controversial at the time, but nonetheless, we did it and proved that people could live, not only with a heart transplant, but also with an artificial heart. What we needed to do from then on was to perfect the device.

As we talk, Dr. Cooley, it occurs to me that you couldn't have been born at a more opportune time to be a heart surgeon.

Denton Cooley: The timing was absolutely perfect. It was ideal. I began my career as a heart surgeon in 1944 and now I've been in the field for almost 50 years. Everything important that's happened in heart surgery, has happened in those four or five decades. I was right there to be a part of it, and I'm happy that I stayed with it.

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Another good decision I made was that I've never departed from an academic atmosphere. I spent 18 years as a full-time faculty member in a surgical department, and then created our own academic program here at the Texas Heart Institute. I've stayed in an institutional environment, which I believe is necessary and ideal for a career in surgery.

What does teaching do for you? I have some idea what your teaching could do for others, but why have you kept teaching all these years, when you could fill up all your time with surgery?

Denton Cooley: I was a beneficiary of a good educational program, and it's always been ingrained in me that I had an obligation to carry on that legacy. Most physicians in medical school are encouraged to teach, but not many do. I've always felt it was an obligation. It is also true that we learn by teaching. We have to organize our thinking so that we can transmit it to students. Every time I prepare a lecture, or write a paper on some scientific subject, I am learning something new. So, actually we learn by teaching. That's one reason I believe we should continue teaching as long as we can.

That's lucky for all the people who study under you. In 1944, you took part in a historic operation with Dr. Alfred Blalock. Describe the circumstances, and what you did.

Denton Cooley: Dr. Blalock and his cardiology colleague, Dr. Helen Taussig, had been trying to find a way to correct "blue baby" syndrome. Dr. Blalock had done experiments in the animal laboratory at Johns Hopkins. I had little to do with those experiments, but I did participate up to a point. When the big day came, there was quite a bit of tension and concern around the surgical suite. I was just an intern, so I felt grateful that I was part of the team. I didn't fully realize, of course, what an impact this operation would have on the new field of heart surgery. I didn't appreciate what was happening, but it became evident in the weeks and months that followed, as heart surgery became a thing of interest all over the world. Patients and doctors flocked to Hopkins to see these new techniques. I was 24 years old, but I was right in the middle of history, and I enjoyed the thrill.

The mortality rate for "blue babies" was fairly high before this, wasn't it?

Denton Cooley: By today's standards, it was quite high, but we didn't have all of the facilities available to us then what we have today. Some of those experiences were very discouraging to me.

I can remember so well, one day when we lost a patient in the operating room. Lost one of the patients back on the cardiac ward, and so forth, and I was very depressed. I went and talked to Dr. Blalock, and I said we ought to cancel the schedule for the rest of the week, and sort of get ourselves back together. And he said, "No. We didn't do anything wrong. We did our best." He said, "You just go ahead and schedule tomorrow's cases as if nothing had gone wrong." He said, "I think I'm going to go out and play nine holes of golf myself." And that was a good lesson to me, you know. The only way you can get over this discouragement, or sadness, is to keep on working. The human mind has a way of putting some of those things in a distant corner, and you just go ahead with your life, and try to overcome those disappointments.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I imagine that could drag you down, if you let it.

Denton Cooley: That's right. But it's part of the game. I still take failure very seriously, but I've found that the only way I could overcome the feeling is to keep on working, and trying to benefit from failures or disappointments. There are always some lessons to be learned. So I keep on working.

I read about another dramatic event from that early period. When you were an intern, you had to act very quickly to repair an aorta that had ruptured during an operation. Can you describe that experience?

Denton Cooley: I was operating with a surgeon who himself was handicapped. He had had a spinal cord tumor. He had one good hand, which was I think his left hand, which he used to operate. And he had one other arm, that was in sort of a brace. We had a patient with an aneurysm here, just under his breast bone. And I remember so well, we got the man anesthetized -- he was actually bleeding when he got in the operating room -- had the man anesthetized, and this surgeon reached down and pulled up the breast bone, and the blood hit the ceiling, and he put his finger in the hole in the aorta, and so he was completely immobilized. Because he had this other arm that he couldn't do much with, and so he said, "Cooley, it's your operation now. See what you can do to get my finger out of the hole." And that was the way that came about. I figured out a way to patch up the hole in the aorta, and the patient survived. But I remembered it was a task that was way beyond my experience at the time. And I wasn't prepared for anything that difficult.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

You were just an intern when this happened?

Denton Cooley: Yes.

Now that's acting fast. That must have been partly instinct.

Denton Cooley: I think so. It's a thing I could handle very well today, but at the time, I was not equipped by training or experience to do what I did.

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