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World-Renowned Heart Surgeon, Dr. Denton Cooley, Dies at 96

Nov 21, 2016 07:36 AM EST
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Texas Heart Institute founder and iconic heart surgeon, Dr. Denton A. Cooley has passed away at the age of 96. In an article by Reuters, the spokeswoman for Texas Children's Hospital said he died in his Houston home on Friday morning, surrounded by his four daughters.

Dr. Cooley, who at the age of 50 had performed over 5,000 cardiac operations, including 17 heart transplants, was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1998 by former President Bill Clinton for his notable pioneering efforts in heart surgery, which has helped tens of thousands of patients.

In 1968, Dr. Cooley made history when he performed the first artificial heart transplant in the United States at Texas Heart Institute for patient, Haskell Karp, 47, from Skokie, Illinois. (The first in the world was done by Dr. Christiaan Barnard from South Africa a year earlier).

Karp was fitted with a mechanical heart, which to everyone's surprise worked for 64 hours, longer than its results in animal testing, while on the lookout for a heart donor. Once they have a heart for Karp, Dr. Cooley transplanted the new heart on him, which unfortunately, only kept him alive for 32 hours. Karp died after due to pneumonia.

This groundbreaking procedure by Dr. Cooley did not sit well with his mentor, Dr. Michael DeBakey, the developer of the artificial heart. According to reports, Dr. DeBakey felt betrayed as the procedure used an artificial heart developed in DeBakey's lab without his knowledge, calling it an unethical and childish act just to snatch a medical first.

Dr. Cooley had long defended his action, citing that it was his duty as a doctor to do whatever he deems as necessary to save a patient's life. "If you are a ship out in the ocean and someone throws you a life preserver, you don't look at it to see if it has been approved by the federal government," he said in an interview.

After 40 years of being archrivals, the two highly regarded heart surgeons ended their four-decade-old medical feud in 2007.

The incident also led to an investigation by the US government, where Dr. Cooley was censured by the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Cooley, in an interview with the New York Times, shared that a lawyer once asked him during a trial if he thought of himself as the world's best heart surgeon, to which he said, "Yes." "Don't you think that's being rather immodest?" the lawyer asked. "Perhaps," Cooley said. "But remember I'm under oath."

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