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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: 8 / 9)

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

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  Denton Cooley

Dr. Cooley, tell us about the goals and the achievements of the Texas Heart Institute.

Denton Cooley: We set out to develop an institution that would be known not only for excellent clinical care, but also for education and research. The research aspect of our program has become increasingly important. We're now the most prolific clinical center for treatment of heart disease in the world. But I think that we need to put even more emphasis on research and education. It may be a long time before we find a cure for heart disease, but we can teach people ways to help prevent it.

You've also made it possible for people to have discount heart surgery. Why did you try to do that?

Denton Cooley: I, like so many people, believe that the cost of medicine is going up at too rapid a rate. And I feel that if we are going to provide health care to society, that we have to keep the cost within certain bounds. I think that some surgeons and hospitals may abuse that sort of ability -- or that opportunity -- that they have to escalate the cost of everything, and be completely unconcerned about what things cost. I guess it's because I was raised during the Great Depression that I have always been concerned about the cost of things. I don't want to compromise a patient's care because of the cost, but at the same time, I don't want to abuse our privilege of providing excellent health care. Some people say the cost is of no concern, this is a human life, and you have to do everything possible. But I think there is a limit to that. And since we do have a high-volume practice, I want to turn some of that back to the individual, so that they can have a reasonable cost of their health care.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

You once said that you consider the Texas Heart Institute your greatest achievement. Why so?

Denton Cooley: I've reviewed the history of physicians and surgeons who have gone before me, and so often it's not so much what they did themselves, like Dr. Blalock's "blue baby operation," which may be replaced entirely by some new procedure, but the school of surgery and the institution that he developed. That's something that will endure for generations to come. I believe the Texas Heart Institute will endure long after I'm gone. Many young people will get their education here, and that will be my major accomplishment.

What advice do you have for young people who want to become surgeons? What qualities do you think are the most important?

Denton Cooley: You have to be intelligent, and be able to cope with stress. It is a stressful life, both mentally and physically. Those are the qualities to succeed as a surgeon.

In general, what do you think are the most important elements of achievement in any field?

Denton Cooley: Application and dedication to duty, respect for yourself and others.

I don't lead by force, I lead by example. And if I can, set a good example. If I can set an example to my staff and my group, by being punctual, I come to work every morning, walk onto the hospital floor within two or three minutes of the same time every day, and they can depend upon it. I deplore these doctors who would show up, you know, an hour, a half hour late, because they were doing something else, or so on. If I say I'm going to be there, I am there every morning. And I am going to be there until I get my work done at night.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What's a typical work day for you these days?

Denton Cooley: I get to the hospital shortly after six every morning. I get home about eight at night. That goes on every day.

Surely you don't have to work that kind of schedule. You could have rested on your laurels a long time ago. Why do you keep going?

Denton Cooley: I enjoy it. I enjoy accomplishment. There are other things to do besides operating. I enjoy writing scientific papers. I'm writing a textbook right now, and have several papers on the way. When I get through by five o'clock, which is unusual, I spend two hours on those kinds of things.

So you don't look toward retirement very soon?

Denton Cooley: No. I dread the thought, as a matter of fact. People say, "When are you going to retire?" And I say, "The only thing that would make me retire would be poor health." As long as I'm healthy, and I enjoy what I'm doing, I'm going to continue doing it.

Dr. DeBakey, for those who want to know, and there will be many, what is a day in the life of Michael DeBakey like? What is your work day like?

Michael DeBakey: I usually get up about 4:30 or five o'clock, and I work in my study for maybe a couple of hours, mostly studying data or writing, and then I come to the hospital. I get to the hospital between 6:30 and seven. And then I check on the cases I've got operating, that morning. Usually by 7:30 we are in the operating room, starting operations. Depending upon what the load is, I may be through by three or four o'clock. Then, I will often take the necessary calls that have accumulated, try to get to some correspondence. And then I've got to see patients that are coming in as outpatients, and also patients that are in the hospital being prepared for an operation the next day. Or there may be a committee meeting I have to attend, or meet with my people in the research laboratory, to go over certain things that they are doing, and sort of bringing up to date where we are. Certain subjects that we are dealing with, things of that sort. So by eight or nine o'clock, I'll get home and have something to eat. And usually by eleven, between eleven and twelve, I go to bed.

That doesn't leave much time for a very personal life, it seems. How do you balance a professional life like yours, with the demands of a private life.

Michael DeBakey: That is my life, so I don't make that distinction. People ask me about vacations. I've never deliberately taken a vacation. I don't see any need for a vacation. On weekends, I have a little time. Like today, for example,.. I've got some people to meet, and there's a manuscript I've got to get done by Monday. It's already past the deadline, so I'll be working all evening and all day tomorrow on it. I may have to go to the hospital and see one or two patients, but that's all.

If a young man or young woman came to you for advice for what it takes to have this kind of career, what it takes to achieve something, what would your advice to them be?

Michael DeBakey: Well, it takes dedication, and self-discipline. That's what it takes.

You've got to be dedicated to whatever you are doing, and you've got to be disciplined so that you know where your priorities are. I mean, if you are going to do it well, then you are going to have to give up some of these things that --in terms of priority -- are not important. Like going to a movie, watching television. They are not going to improve your ability to do the task that you've got. If reading will improve it, then you've got to read, see? And learn what's happening, or what has been published about it. So that becomes a priority, not going to a movie, not going to a cocktail party.

Dr. Cooley, working as hard as you do, there must have been sacrifices in terms of your personal life. Did your career ever get in the way of relationships?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: That's a possibility. I may not have gained as many close friendships as others would have done. People say, "You must neglect your family." I don't really believe that. They appreciate what I'm doing for them. I spend time with my family -- my wife, my five daughters and 13 grandchildren -- when I can. But I'm not lying around the house for hours at a time.

How do you refresh yourself away from work?

Denton Cooley: I enjoy a number of activities. I still enjoy sports. I play golf and tennis when I can. I have a ranch, and a beach house close by. I go to those places when I can. Just taking my wife to a movie is relaxation for me. I also enjoy reading. Sometimes I read novels, but historical fiction and biographies interest me most. I enjoy history. When I am traveling, even going to medical meetings, I love to take along several books. I enjoy reading, just to keep abreast of what's going on in the world.

Are there any novels that you've enjoyed in recent years?

Denton Cooley: I thought The Bonfire of The Vanities was fun to read. Not very educational, but fun to read. I'd have to think of some others a little more meaningful than that. I enjoy reading biographies. I found Gore Vidal's books about Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln very inspiring. I really enjoy Vidal's books. Although they're works of fiction, they're based on solid fact and provide an enjoyable means of expanding our knowledge and giving us another look at historical figures.

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