Two Hearts

In this exclusive excerpt from his memoir, 100,000 Hearts, the Houston surgeon gives his version of the stories behind a pair of operations that turned him into a world-famous figure—and sparked his decades-long estrangement from his colleague Michael DeBakey.
Two Hearts
Courtesy of Texas Heart Institute
Courtesy of

On December 3, 1967, shocking news arrived from South Africa: a Cape Town surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, had performed the first human heart transplant. Probably no operation in history had ever generated so much publicity. In my professional circles, the excitement was particularly intense. At the time, I was a professor of surgery at Houston’s Baylor University College of Medicine and a cardiovascular surgeon at Texas Children’s Hospital and St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, which were the bases for my newly created Texas Heart Institute. Like many of my colleagues, I had long regarded heart transplantation as the next necessary development in our field, and I was envious of Chris’s success. The day after the story broke, I sent him a telegram: “Congratulations on your first transplant, Chris. I will be reporting my first hundred soon.”

Chris’s patient, Louis Washkansky, died after eighteen days, but Chris was not discouraged and soon performed another transplant, with similar results. Within a short time, a couple of other surgeons in the United States followed suit, and their patients, too, died within days. Dr. Michael DeBakey, the chairman of the Department of Surgery at Baylor, appointed a committee to explore establishing a heart transplant program at Baylor-affiliated Methodist Hospital. He did not include me, even though I was by then the most experienced heart surgeon in the world. This slight wasn’t unintentional, nor was it altogether unexpected. Mike was a difficult man, and though we had had many professional successes in the sixteen years we had worked together, by the late sixties our relationship had, for a variety of reasons, deteriorated significantly.

Under these circumstances, I didn’t feel that I had to get Mike’s approval to proceed independently. I asked my surgical associates Grady Hallman and Robert Bloodwell, who worked with me at St. Luke’s and Texas Children’s, to be part of my team. I let them know that I was planning to do a transplant at the first opportunity.

On May 2, 1968, I was in Shreveport, Louisiana, giving a talk to the medical society there. Just before my presentation, reporters asked whether I was planning to do a heart transplant. I answered, truthfully, that I had no “immediate plans.” A couple of hours later, I got a call from Robert. “Boss, I think we’ve got a donor,” he told me. “A fifteen-year-old girl who shot herself in the head with a .22 pistol after arguing with her nineteen-year-old husband. Her brain waves have been

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