DeBakey recalled as medical pioneer, friend

Image: Katrin DeBakey
Katrin DeBakey, right, and her daughter Olga leave the church after the memorial service for her husband, famed pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a tribute that mixed praise and personal anecdotes, pioneering heart surgeon Michael DeBakey was remembered at a memorial service Wednesday as not only a brilliant physician and medical innovator but also a friend and humanitarian.

Many of the medical professionals among the 1,800 in attendance wore their surgical scrubs or white coats to honor the father of modern heart surgery, whose body also was dressed in doctor's garb. DeBakey died Friday at the age of 99.

During the two-hour service at a Catholic church in Houston, friends and colleagues detailed DeBakey's rise and called him one of the greatest doctors ever. Intermingled with those accolades were heartfelt stories of DeBakey's personal life, everything from his love of gumbo to his learning to play the clarinet in three months to his baby-sitting abilities.

"Dr. DeBakey is irreplaceable. There will never be another one like him," said Dr. Bobby Alford, chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine, which counts DeBakey as its first president.

A man of many titles
Near the World War II veteran's flag-draped coffin in the church sat his wife, Katrin, daughter Olga, sons Michael and Denis, his sisters Lois and Selma, grandchildren and other relatives.

Alford said DeBakey's titles were many: surgeon, teacher, educator, researcher, statesman.

The executive vice president of The Methodist Hospital, DeBakey's home hospital for 60 years, noted DeBakey's impressive list of patients, which included the Duke of Windsor, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan and presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

"Everyone from kings to the common man came to Methodist to be treated by Dr. DeBakey," Dr. Marc Boom said. "He was a man who unquestionably changed the world."

DeBakey's many accomplishments over his more than 70-year career include: inventing a major component of the heart-lung machine, which ushered in the era of open-heart surgery; developing artificial hearts and heart pumps to assist patients waiting for transplants; and helping create more than 70 surgical instruments.

Houston socialite Joanne Herring told mourners she wanted to tell them about the lighter side of her friend's life.

'Played clarinet, while also chasing girls'
She said that while studying to get both an undergraduate and medical degree at Tulane University, DeBakey learned to play the clarinet in three months, playing well enough to earn a spot on the symphony orchestra. DeBakey had originally wanted to play the saxophone, which he already knew, but was told there was no saxophone in the symphony.

"For four years he played clarinet, while also chasing girls," Herring said.

Herring also recounted how Frank Sinatra introduced DeBakey to Katrin, his second wife, during a dinner party; Katrin was a German film actress at the time.

Dr. John Ochsner, chairman emeritus of the department of surgery at Ochsner Health System in Louisiana, said he first got to know DeBakey not as a doctor but as his baby sitter.

Ochsner's father was DeBakey's mentor at Tulane University. When Ochsner got older, he came to study medicine in Houston, where DeBakey became his mentor.

"You can rest in peace that you have trained many good men. We will always remember you," Ochsner said.

The end of the memorial service turned into a jazz funeral, as the Young Tuxedos Brass Band, a New Orleans musical group, performed while the coffin was led out of the church and loaded into a hearse.

DeBakey, a soldier during World War II, is scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Friday.

On Tuesday, DeBakey's body lay in repose in Houston City Hall at the request of his family. Officials said it is the first time a Houston resident was given that honor.