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Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's hard to be my doctor: Surgeon DeBakey as patient

The pioneering heart surgeon's story:
The doctor who operated on me only a few years ago was one I trained. I was lucky to have somebody like that.

[Dr. DeBakey, now 99, pioneered numerous cardiac procedures, including the cardiac bypass and the artificial heart transplant. In 1954, he devised a technique to repair arteries using a Dacron tube he made on his wife's sewing machine. In 2006, he became the oldest survivor of the procedure he invented.]

Never had a symptom. The pain came like a bullet out of the blue. I was alone when it started. My wife and my daughter had gone out. The pain is often described as the worst pain you can have. The pain was so severe that I would have welcomed anything to relieve it – including death. I wasn't going to fight it I look upon death as a part of living, just as some trees lose all their leaves in the winter and have them replaced in the spring. But at the same time, part of me was thinking, What caused this pain? Part of me was doing a diagnosis on myself – which, as it turned out, was correct. Aortic dissection. I'd written more articles about the condition than anybody in the world, and I resigned myself to having a heart stoppage. The pain didn't teach me anything about the heart. It simply emphasized what I had already learned.

I was a little surprised to find myself recovering after the surgery. Then gratified to have been given a second life.

During my recovery, I played possum. I pretended to be sleeping and listened to what the doctors standing over my bed were saying about my condition. Then I'd argue with them about the therapy. I'd make them prove I needed it.

I guess it's hard to be my doctor.

Advice: Be a polite and vigorous advocate for your care in the hospital, or get a patient advocate.

Browse for related stories in the index at the very bottom of this page, or read another story about Dr. DeBakey.

Thanks to Cal Fussman for the source interview of Dr. DeBakey in the March 2008 issue of Esquire magazine.

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