World renowned surgical pioneer Dr. Denton A. Cooley once said, “I find I’m luckier when I work harder.” We at Texas Children’s were actually the “lucky” ones. A few days ago, we lost one of the greatest surgeons of the 20th century. But for decades, we were recipients of Dr. Cooley’s gifted hands and mind, and we will be forever grateful for the indelible impact he made on the history of medicine and his contributions to Texas Children’s.
Dr. Cooley is one of the most important figures in the history and success of our hospital as we know it today. He was a phenomenal pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, and he was the co-founder and chief of cardiovascular surgery at Texas Children’s Heart Center. It was Dr. Cooley in surgery and Dr. Dan McNamara, the father of pediatric cardiology, who laid the foundation for what has remained one of our centers of excellence for more than 60 years.
When Dr. Cooley was beginning his career in Houston in the 1950s, he was already thinking about things no one else could fathom. One of those things was pediatric cardiovascular surgery – what we now refer to as congenital heart surgery. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, adult cardiovascular surgery was considerably ahead of congenital surgery on babies, children and adolescents. People were afraid to operate on babies. In fact, the rule of thumb was you didn’t operate on a baby less than a year old.
I think the challenge of such a complex undertaking is what fascinated Dr. Cooley. And every person who worked alongside him said he had the best set of surgical hands they had ever seen. So I imagine what drove Dr. Cooley was a tremendous sense of responsibility to use his talent and skill in the most challenging arenas, on the toughest cases. Operating successfully on babies and children and creating hope and possibility where neither had previously existed presented him that challenge, and he absolutely rose to and beyond it.
Lest one could possibly take for granted just how special Dr. Cooley was, there was always an intriguing reminder. I recall traveling with him in 1994 to the White House at the request of First Lady Hillary Clinton. Dr. Cooley was very interested in health policy, and First Lady Clinton was leading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. She invited a contingent of about 20 Texas Medical Center leaders to the White House to discuss health care reform.
On the shuttle to the White House, I remember talking with Dr. Cooley in great anticipation of the visit. We arrived, and we were taken to The Roosevelt Room, one of the most distinguished venues within the White House. When we met with First Lady Clinton, she greeted each member of the group, but she stopped and spent a generous amount of time speaking with Dr. Cooley. It was obvious that she had looked forward to meeting him more than anyone else, and she was clearly in awe of his presence. The rest of us were in awe of the White House, the historic splendor of The Roosevelt Room and the company of the first lady, and she was completely enamored with Dr. Cooley.
I recall another occasion when Larry King visited Texas Children’s. He was impressed with the hospital but could not resist requesting a visit with Dr. Cooley. I sat with Larry King in his heyday and Dr. Cooley, talking about the future of medicine, Hollywood, entertainment and their friendship, and it was just fascinating.
Dr. Cooley was indeed some kind of special. He was gifted and confident, for sure, but he was also tempered. He didn’t brag – his skills and outcomes spoke volumes. And the only thing that possibly compared was his work ethic. He worked Monday through Friday, 12 to 14 hours a day. He made rounds on Saturday morning, came back and made rounds again on Sunday morning, and then he went to church. For decades, he consistently worked 6½ days a week, and ultimately, he performed more than 100,000 heart procedures. That is amazing, and it is a record that will probably never be broken.
We have lost one of the last titans of the Texas Medical Center. But there is neither time, words nor space to describe how much we have gained from them. Dr. Denton Cooley, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Dr. James “Red” Duke, Dr. R. Lee Clark, Dr. Ralph Feigin, and so many others have gone, but they all left such precious gifts – impeccable vision and the fruits of their ceaseless, inspiring pursuits. Dr. Cooley’s passing last week was the end of an era in the Texas Medical Center, but he used his calling and his time here to create possibilities that will renew life forever more.
Thank you, Dr. Cooley. Very well and precisely done, my friend.