Feud fuels advances in heart surgery

HOUSTON - World famous heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley helped put the Texas Medical Center on the map. But a bitter feud with Dr. Michael DeBakey further fueled the race to be the first and the best.

Cooley, 91, has written about his unique experiences in his memoirs.

Cooley still reports to work every day at the Texas Heart Institute, which he founded. He reluctantly retired from operating years ago, but still keeps abreast of the latest in heart surgery.

"Will you ever completely retire?" KPRC Local 2 anchor Rachel McNeill asked.

"I don't plan to. I hope I don't have to," Cooley said.

Cooley's new book, "100,000 Hearts," chronicles his fascinating life as a pioneer in the field of cardiac surgery.

Cooley said he wrote it for two reasons -- as a written history for his children and grandchildren, and to clarify some perceived misconceptions about his longstanding rivalry with DeBakey.

"I wanted to set the record straight, or at least set it straight from my standpoint," Cooley said.

In 1968, in the race for "firsts," Cooley performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States.

A year later, he implanted the first artificial heart. DeBakey maintained the device was taken from his lab without his permission. To this day, Cooley defends his actions.

"Would you have done anything differently?" McNeill asked.

"I don't believe so. I have no regrets about the things that I did and the courage that I demonstrated in order to explore new fields," Cooley answered.

The rift lasted four decades until the two finally buried the hatchet in 2007.

The following year, DeBakey passed away.

"It was something that gave me a lot of satisfaction -- to have that reconciliation and I still can't forget some of the things that he did or challenges he put to me that I thought were unfair," Cooley said.

The memoir is a page-turner, taking the reader inside the operations that saved countless lives.

"It's a great feeling of comfort or reward when some 50-year-old patient will tell me that I operated on them when they were 2 weeks old, and they felt like their life was made possible from that surgery. Not many other professions can enjoy those kind of rewards," Cooley said.

But despite all his accomplishments, Cooley said his greatest pride is nestled in the heart of the Texas Medical Center.

"I think the Heart Institute, the Texas Heart Institute, will endure and provide my real legacy in surgery," Cooley said.

Cooley has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Technology.

When asked what his dream job would have been had he not become a world-class surgeon, Cooley answered, "a professional golfer."

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