Denton Cooley: A Surgeon Who Performed the First Heart Transplant Passes On at 96

Denton Cooley is a leading United States Surgeon renowned for performing a successful heart transplant. He also made other cardiac surgery advances, including removing aortic aneurysms, bypass operation, and valve replacement. His sudden demise was announced by the Texas Heart Institute, an institution he established in 1962 and worked until he passed on.

In the early 40s, Dr. Denton was studying medicine at John Hopkins University. During his time as a student, he was considered the most productive and innovative surgeon of his time. Cooley assisted during the first “blue baby” operation in 1944, which helped to correct congenital heart defect in infants. Throughout his career as a surgeon, he has supervised and performed more than 100,000 procedures.

In the early 50s, he partnered with Michael DeBakey to develop techniques used in heart-bypass surgery. They mostly worked on a machine with the capability to make sure that the patients remained alive while undertaking the open-heart surgery. While working with his older surgeons and mentor DeBakey, they created surgical methods for repairing aortic aneurysms.

In 1969, the two surgeons parted ways after Dr. Denton performed the first heart transplant with an artificial heart. Following the successful heart transplant, DeBakey pointed out that the device used by Dr. Coolie was stolen because his team had developed it. The quarrel between the two doctors became public and even featured on the front page of Life Magazine.

Despite the disagreements, no one could dispute Dr. Cooley’s expertise as a surgeon. Cooley had perfected his precision at the surgical table by trying to curve surgical knots using a matchbox. This is an art that ultimately led to his expertise in performing surgery operations on children. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, James Willerson, Dr. Cooley successor at the Texas Heart Institute, pointed out that he is an expert heart surgeon that ever lived.

As the rivalry between Dr. Cooley and DeBakey continued to fester, Dr. Denton continued to run the Texas Heart Institute while DeBakey remained affiliated with the Houston Methodist Hospital. These two medical facilities were a hundred feet from each other, and provided incredible health services to heart patients.

A Book published in 1971, “Heart of Surgeons,” outlined how the two doctors had played a critical role in transforming cardiovascular surgery. In the 20th-century, the main cause of death among the older population in the developing world was as a result of heart disease. In the 1960s, the advancements in surgical and treatment methods for heart disease was among the cutting edge technology in medicine worldwide.

December 1967 saw a breakthrough in heart surgery following heart transplant that was performed by Christian Barnard, a South African Doctor. By carefully studying Dr. Barnard’s surgical techniques, Dr. Coley successfully performed the United States heart transplant in May 1968. The heart was from a young girl whose death was ruled as suicide, and the recipient was a 47-year old man who survived for 204 days. One year after his successful surgery, he performed more than 22 heart transplants.

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