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Peter Mehlman

When doctors were heroes

In third grade, I wrote a fan letter to Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.

That sentence alone is baggy with implications: In 1964, there were actually doctors famous for being wonderful, as opposed to now, when we have Kevorkian and Phil. In 1964, medicine was still magical, not just another corporate field best avoided. And in 1964, my mother was doing a bang-up job pushing me toward a career in medicine.

Dozens of factors contributed to my becoming the esteemed cardiologist I am not today. DeBakey, who died Friday at age 99, wasn't one of them.

My letter was, according to family lore, oppressively cute in all its science-y curiosity about the artificial heart. The prospect of their son dedicating his life to sloshing around chest cavities impelled my parents to spring for an airmail stamp, and off to Houston the letter flew. The response flew back to Queens just as fast. Yes, that's right. DeBakey, the superstar heart surgeon who was doing stuff like boosting an artery from a patient's leg and reassigning it to the same patient's thorax, took the time to write back.

DeBakey thanked me for my interest in his work and included literature featuring unbelievably cool photos of the surgically repaired gizzards deep inside some kind of cattle. I read the stuff like it was a collection of Archie comics.

The '60s media covered all of DeBakey's exploits. His heart procedures ran neck and neck with the space race for national fascination. Somewhere above my head, there seemed to be some feud going on between him and another superstar surgeon named Denton Cooley. I took sides like it was the New York Mets vs. the New York Yankees. Then a South African surgeon named Christiaan Barnard did a heart transplant on a man named Louis Washkansky. Yes, health care was such a turn-on then that I still remember the name of the first transplant patient. I was disappointed that this foreign doctor nudged DeBakey out of the scrubs limelight, but DeBakey was lavish in his praise of Barnard, so I went along.

After some dizzyingly hopeful postop reports of his sitting up and talking, Washkansky died 18 days after his transplant. It felt like losing the World Series.

One day in 1969, my mother unexpectedly picked me up from junior high. What are you doing here? I asked. She said she was taking me to St. John's University to see a speech delivered by DeBakey. In a weird bit of reverse snobbery, I couldn't believe that DeBakey would come to New York.

After his speech, my mom pushed me to introduce myself to this doctor/deity. I told him my name and, before I could remind him of the letter, he hugged me. He remembered my letter. (How cute was that letter?) He remembered my name. We spoke. I told him I wanted to be a cardiologist. Then, for that someday when I would need a med school recommendation, DeBakey gave me his home phone number.

Today, you would have a better chance of getting Dick Cheney's cell phone number than your dermatologist's home number. Still, I wound up never making the call.

As a college sophomore, I told my parents I wanted to go into journalism, not medicine. It felt like I was copping to an unsolved murder.

Then, in the late '80s, when the world knew that doctors were fallible, drowning in the cost of malpractice insurance and often not even professionally happy, my father had an aortic aneurysm. By the dumb luck of a perfectly timed standard physical, a bubble was found in his aorta, maybe weeks shy of catastrophically bursting. The area had to be removed and replaced with a ring of Dacron.

During the five-hour operation, I told my mother that "Daddy's surgery was pioneered by … DeBakey." My mother wanly smiled, looked around the hospital, and said, "You know, I'm so glad you didn't become a doctor."

DeBakey's procedure bought my father 20 years. He and my father died within eight months of each other. For me, the loss of DeBakey felt like the last cut of all ties to the road not taken.

Peter Mehlman, former Seinfeld writer, is a screenwriter and essayist.

When doctors were heroes 07/17/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:05am]

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