Dallas Cardiologists, Surgeons Reflect on Dr. Denton Cooley, Who Died on Friday

Denton Cooley, the Houston surgeon who pioneered heart transplants and implanted the world’s first artificial heart, died on Friday at 96 years old.

In 1968, Cooley transplanted the first human heart in the United States. The next year, he implanted an artificial heart as a bridge to transplant, giving patients a chance at life even if a heart was not immediately available. He helped develop practices that spread across the industry to repair and replace diseased heart valves. He was a trailblazer in correcting congenital heart disease in pediatric patients. Along with his partner Dr. Michael Debakey, with whom Cooley quashed a decadeslong feud in 2007 before Debakey’s death, Cooley pioneered modern heart surgery. As The New York Times put it, “the two surgeons had important roles in virtually every major development in heart and blood-vessel surgery.”

He pushed the operation into new territory and spent years convincing the federal government to pay for research to further it. The artificial heart was actually developed out of a National Institutes of Health grant by Debakey. The split occurred when Cooley took the artificial heart without Debakey’s OK in order to save a patient. It worked for 64 hours, but the patient died of pneumonia before a heart could be procured. He formed the Texas Heart Institute in 1962 after splitting from Debakey, which remains one of the nation’s most renowned cardiac centers.

I asked a few cardiac specialists—Dr. Gonzalo “Gonzo” Gonzalez-Stawinski, the chief of heart transplantation at Baylor University Medical Center; Dr. Shelley Hall, the chief of transplant cardiology and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor; and Dr. Rick Snyder, medical director for advanced heart failure and cardiac program development at Medical City—to say a few words about what Denton Cooley meant to them and to heart surgery.

Dr. Gonzo Gonzalez:

Denton Cooley is one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand on today. I didn’t meet him, but anyone who knows anything about cardiac surgery knows who Denton Cooley was. He was the maverick that led to the cardiac surgery revolution. His contributions to surgery and medicine are exhaustive; you wouldn’t have cardiac surgery if it wouldn’t have been for Denton Cooley.

When he and Debakey split and Denton Cooley went on to form the Texas Heart Institute, it was considered the cradle of cardiac surgery. People from all over the whole world would migrate there, not only to be trained, but to be treated. It’s not only that he was an important person in the state, he was the figure. He and Debakey were basically the figures that represented cardiac care for millions of people all over the world. So, his passing just makes you remember the origins of who we are and where we came from.

And we all in our specialty—and not only cardiac surgery but cardiovascular medicine in general—owe him a huge gratitude and debt for everything he did. He pushed forward the specialty in an era in which only the trailblazers were alive with very little regulation and a lot of intestinal and spiritual fortitude. It’s almost like imagining conquering or going to the West back in the day. That’s how it was.

I never had a chance to meet the man, but those who did say he was a gentleman. He was incredibly innovative and intelligent and even at his late age he was someone who everyone respected his opinion in the history of cardiac surgery. It’s an incredible loss for our profession. I hope some day I’ll live in an era or see one that can replicate what he was able to do. We would love to see another Denton Cooley in our generation.

Dr. Shelley Hall:

Because of his courage and pioneering spirit, we are able to help more patients today with cardiac transplantation and total artificial hearts. His accomplishments are permanently represented by our patients.

Dr. Rick Snyder:

The pioneering career of heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley casted a shadow of legendary, almost mythical, proportions on a worldwide stage. He helped make Texas a destination for advanced, innovative, cutting edge heart surgery giving hope to those from around the world with cardiac disease who otherwise had none. Dr. Cooley helped to pioneer and perfect many now-commonplace procedures as coronary bypass, valve replacement, and congenital heart disease repair.  In the late 1960s he performed the first human heart transplantation in the U.S. and the first human artificial heart implant worldwide. His boldness in advancing the therapeutic envelope in the field of cardiovascular disease was part of my inspiration to pursue a career as an interventional and transplant cardiologist.

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