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If you like Denton Cooley's story, you might also like:
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Denton Cooley's recommended reading: Miss Susie Slagle's

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Denton Cooley in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

Related Links:
Texas Heart Institute

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Denton Cooley Interview

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

April 11, 1991
Houston, Texas

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  Denton Cooley

(The following is a combined interview with pioneering heart surgeons Dr. Denton A. Cooley and Dr. Michael E. DeBakey.)

Can you describe the day that you did the first American heart transplant?

Denton Cooley: I was aware that Christiaan Barnard in South Africa had done two transplants, one of which was successful, and Norm Shaumway at Stanford had done one which was not successful. We were poised to do one.

We were having a difficult time finding a donor. As a matter of fact, I was over in Shreveport, Louisiana, giving a lecture to the medical society, and was telling them that we were not yet in the transplant business, and had no foreseeable opportunity to do a transplant. I got a telephone call from Houston, saying they had a donor. So I got on an airplane and came back to Houston and did the transplant that night at two o'clock in the morning, after I'd told the reporters over there that we weren't involved in transplantation. Some of them were very upset when the news came out that we had done the first transplant.

It was an exciting thing to do. My team of doctors was here in Houston making arrangements for the donor and the operation, while I was flying back from Shreveport. After the operation, I was catapulted to a level of notoriety I had never known before.

Who was the donor?

Denton Cooley: The donor was a teenage girl with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It was a suicide attempt.

Could you describe the transplant procedure? How do you open somebody up and remove a heart?

Denton Cooley: First, we have to bypass the patient's heart and get the recipient on the heart/lung machine, very much like we do for any open heart operation.

We take out the heart. Remove the heart mostly, the ventricles, and the heart valves. And then you have an open chest there, with just these various chambers exposed. We, in another operating room, will take out the heart and bring it over, and with sutures, just suture the two atria together. Those are the upper chambers of the heart. And we suture the two main arteries, the pulmonary artery, and the aorta, together. And then when you start the blood flowing back into the aorta, it gets into the coronary arteries, and that starts the donor heart, to its normal function. And that's the whole scenario.

In the last few years, you've perfected the heart bypass That went from being a tremendously risky surgery, to almost routine. How did you make such a dramatic advance in such a short time?

Denton Cooley: There's been an evolution of techniques. We realized that you could by-pass obstructions in the coronary system. But before that, we had to find some way to substitute for the heart function. Once the heart/lung machine was developed we had one problem solved. Then we needed a method of seeing which part of the artery was obstructed. With the development of arteriography, we had our method. With those things behind us, and with some of the experience we'd had with bypassing arterial obstructions in the legs, we learned to bypass obstructions in the coronary arteries. Today, coronary artery bypass is the most commonly performed open heart operation.

Dr. Cooley, what is it about the heart that so fascinates you?

Denton Cooley: It's really a fascinating organ. It's about the only organ in the body that you can really witness its function. It's active and doing things, and so on. Some of the other organs you can witness, like the intestines, will have this sort of peristaltic motion. But nothing can compare with the activity of the human heart. And besides that, it's always had a special connotation in our society, or in our life. It's been the seat of the soul, and the seat of emotions. The seat of many things. And so, it has always been considered to be an organ that was not amenable, did not lend itself to manipulation. But now we find that it really is a tough little organ. It can tolerate a great deal, and it certainly has been revealed that it can be corrected in many ways, and even replaced by organ transplantation.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Dr. Cooley, were you a sort of budding scientist as a child? Were you very curious?

Denton Cooley Interview Photo
Denton Cooley: I think I was a curious child. I was interested in all of the biological sciences when I was a student in grade school. Eventually that curiosity developed into an interest in medicine.

Where did that curiosity come from?

Denton Cooley: My father was a dentist. His work interested me, and he was always willing to explain procedures and new devices. My older brother was sort of a naturalist, and together we pursued all sorts of activities that dealt with life itself.

So you liked being out in nature?

Denton Cooley: I really enjoyed nature. We did a lot of hunting and camping together, and it inspired me to major in the biological sciences when I entered the university.

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This page last revised on Sep 29, 2010 18:05 EDT
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