This month’s TMC Pulse cover features Dr. Denton A. Cooley. Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, I was aware of the legend of Dr. Cooley and the incredible work being done in the Texas Medical Center. His work came to life through the firsthand account provided to me by a local general surgeon who permitted me to follow him everywhere he went during my high school years, even allowing me to scrub on cases with him once I was a college premed student.
Dr. Cooley performed Dr. McCraw’s coronary artery bypass operation in the early 1970s, and he mesmerized me with details of how he was one of twenty operations performed by Dr. Cooley and his team that day. Following his convalescence, Dr. Cooley permitted Dr. McCraw to go behind the scenes to watch the coordinated effort orchestrated by the Texas Heart Institute day in and day out. Learning that Dr. Cooley was the surgeon to the surgeons clearly inspired and motivated me to become a heart surgeon. I first met Dr. Cooley at the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons annual meeting in New Orleans in 1984 when I was a second year surgical resident. I naively just went up to this giant in American surgery and introduced myself and told him of my dream to be a heart surgeon. He was gracious and encouraged me to work hard to chase my goal.
In the years that followed, I got to know Dr. Cooley and was fortunate enough to be visiting the TMC on his 76th birthday. He had just performed a minimally invasive coronary artery bypass operation with the heart beating without the support of the heart lung machine. He told me that surgeons needed to remain curious, to innovate and to learn new methods to improve the care of their patients.
Dr. Cooley developed a friendship with my mentor, Dr. Shumway, the Stanford heart surgeon who is recognized as the Father of Heart Transplantation. They were members of a senior cardiac surgeons traveling golf group and enjoyed many memorable rounds of golf together. I always enjoyed Dr. Cooley’s visits to Stanford and when we established the annual Shumway lecture, Dr. Cooley served as the inaugural speaker.
Dr. Cooley has performed more heart operations than any surgeon in history. It has been my great fortune to know and learn from him. We are all so blessed to have him as the pioneering, innovative spiritual leader of the Texas Medical Center and we all should be inspired to continue the work that has been Dr. Cooley’s life mission — improving the health of the people of Houston, Texas, our nation and the world.