Decorated doctor’s New Orleans path

A medical career that began at Tulane University more than 70 years ago has earned Dr. Michael DeBakey the highest honor the nation can bestow on a civilian. Renowned as a medical pioneer and the inventor of many procedures, tools and medical delivery concepts credited with saving thousands of lives, DeBakey was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C.

“My pride as a citizen of the United States of America is overflowing,” said DeBakey, who turns 100 this year and still practices medicine at the Methodist Hospital in Houston.

Only 196 Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded since 1776, when the first was given to George Washington. Others to receive the honor include Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, Jonas Salk and Pope John Paul II.

“He has been able to accomplish in his lifetime what it would normally take four or five individuals to achieve,” said Dr. George Noon, a surgeon at Methodist Hospital who has worked with DeBakey for more than 40 years. “He is deservedly known around the world for his contributions to mankind and he certainly deserves this award.”

The road to this honor, and all the life-saving achievements it represents, began in New Orleans. DeBakey earned both his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Tulane and his gift for innovation was evident even then. While still a medical student, he invented a pump for blood transfusions that was used in the first successful open-heart operation.

He stayed in the city after graduation and completed his internship and residency in surgery at Charity Hospital before pursuing fellowships in Europe. But he returned to New Orleans in 1937 to join the Tulane medical school faculty.

When America entered World War II, he volunteered for military service and became the Director of the Surgical Consultants’ Division for the Army’s medical branch. He proposed a series of mobile field medical units, called Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units, which allowed medical personnel quick access to wounded soldiers. The concept proved highly successful during the Korean War, with MASH unit medical teams able to achieve a 97 percent survival rate for patients.

After the war, DeBakey’s proposal to create specialized medical centers to treat wounded veterans evolved into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center System. He would later perform the first successful coronary bypass surgery, developed groundbreaking surgeries for stroke patients and supervised the first successful multi-organ transplant, among many other accomplishments in medicine.