Medical Center pioneer Dr. Denton Cooley reflects on life’s ups and downs

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by KHOU.com staff

Len Cannon / KHOU 11 News

Posted on December 1, 2012 at 12:56 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 3 at 2:34 PM

HOUSTON—One of the pioneers of the Texas Medical Center has written a book about his life that includes the good and the bad.

Dr. Denton Cooley sat down with KHOU 11 News Anchor Len Cannon and talked about his success, family tragedy and his infamous dispute with another medical pioneer.

Outside St. Luke’s Hospital is Denton Cooley Plaza.  Inside is Cooley auditorium.  And there’s a very large statue of him.

Len Cannon:  What do you make of all this?

Cooley: Well I think it’s probably overdone.

However his accomplishments prove otherwise.

In 1968, Dr. Cooley performed the first heart transplant in the United States.   The following year he performed the world’s first artificial heart transplant.   It made him a medical rock star.

Cannon: Did you enjoy that?

Cooley:  Oh yes, very much it was a very unusual era.

He tells his story in his book, 100,000 Hearts, for the number of operations he and his team performed.   And he gets personal.   

He filed for bankruptcy in 1987 when the Houston economy went bust.  He also talks about losing one of his five daughters, who was bi-polar.

Cannon: How does one deal with the loss of a child?

Cooley: Well it was one of the great tragedies of my life, when one of my daughters took her own life.

Cooley grew up in the Heights, and started his career at Baylor College of Medicine.  He was hired by another renowned surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. A man he admired and clashed with.

Cooley: Mike had many good attributes, but he had a couple of character flaws, which I didn’t appreciate.”

After Dr. Cooley’s groundbreaking transplant Debakey called it a stunt, and accused Cooley of using the artificial device without his permission.   The two men stopped speaking for 40 years.

Cannon: Why did it take 40 years to reconcile?

Cooley: I don’t know, seem like it would go on forever, I finally decided it was time to call a halt.

He reached out to Debakey in 2007 and they made peace one year before Debakey died.

At age 92 Dr. Cooley still comes to his office at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital four days a week.

After a lifetime of stunning accomplishments, Dr. Cooley considers the institute, that he founded 50 years ago, to be his crowning achievement and his proudest legacy.

 

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