Even before I turned seventy I was thinking about how to live my best life, whether I might live a long, fruitful life, and whether I had any control over the matter. It was with these concerns that I picked up the book The Art of Aging by Dr. Sherwin Nulland, author of an earlier book published ten years earlier called How We Die, an exploration of disease states we might succumb to at any point in one’s life. (Think heart disease, cancer, AIDS, etc.). While both are written by a doctor, neither is a clinical book nor were they depressing to me. Instead both are moving accounts of how our bodies and organs function, how they may break down as we age, and how to deal with it.
In the Art of Aging, one chapter in particular stood out: “Approaching a Century: Michael DeBakey”. At the time of the book’s publication in 2007, Dr. DeBakey was recognized as the leading cardiovascular surgeon in the world. He invented his first cardiology-related device as a twenty-two year old medical student in 1931: a pump for the propulsion of blood through flexible tubing, it became “the crucial component that enabled the development of the heart-lung machine for cardiac surgery.”
Onward his scientific mind and innovative spirit took off: he developed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH units) and founded the National Library of Medicine. He became chairman of surgery at Baylor University in Houston and became the pioneer in surgery for aneurysms in the chest and abdomen, as well as treatment of occlusions in the carotid artery to the brain that commonly causes stroke.
Over the years Dr. DeBakey developed a huge surgical practice, eventually numbering over 60,000 patients, 95% of whom he maintained long-term follow-up studies.
He operated until the age of 90 (though could have continued) because there were so many other things that he felt “needed to be done”. He traveled the world as a speaker, author, and consultant continuing to develop new devices to aid his patients, conduct laboratory research, and mentor others. But he was more than a cardiac surgeon. Even at the age of 96 he could hold his own to discuss at length subjects like the origins and theology of the world religions, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and democracy.
What drives a man like DeBakey to be so full of life even in at age 96?
His wife said the chief driver for him was “love” …the love of his patients fed his work and it was love and his work that gave life its meaning”. Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, who was also Lebanese American like DeBakey said “work is love made visible.” DeBakey’s wife maintained that he approached his work with love and it fed him. It was his commitment to his patients and their outcomes that kept him going strong into his nineties.
There was nothing he didn’t enjoy more than “giving hope to others, and to maintain it, to save it.” As a surgeon he was in the perfect position to do just that.
Whatever one’s constitution, intellectual or physical state, this man’s approach to living and working is inspirational. It is in the giving to others that meaning is attained, and it is apparent to me, in my quasi-retirement, in this particular time in history that we live that alleviating concerns of others, giving hope to our fellow man is the most important things to do. It pays off for both giver and receiver.
I’m particularly aware of how fortunate I am as a white guy living in America. While not in perfect health, I do my best to maintain a good weight, walk daily and eat healthfully, stay informed and self-advocate as necessary. Apparently Michael DeBakey ate like a bird; that’s not my way, but I do my best to stay clear of sugar and processed foods. I’m far from perfect; I really enjoy muffins, hermits and M&M’s, but try to substitute healthy choices whenever possible.
We’re living in the midst of an existential threat to our planet (and quality of life). We’re watching an unspeakable cruel and destructive war in Ukraine. We have on our hands an energy crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a financial crisis, a democracy crisis and a mental health crisis for the children and adolescents fearing the future of living on a planet on track to warm up to over 3 degrees Celsius in the not-so-distant future.
We’re living in a world that continues to finance dirty coal-related projects at a pace that is more than two times last year’s pace, and a world where greedy fat cats in the largest financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase (which is the worst of the dirty dozen) continue to pour money into dirty fuels investments which spew even more carbon dioxide into the air … to what end? These are not times for the faint of heart. No pun intended.
What better time than now to be kind and to extend a helping hand to others? Dr. Nuland maintains: “One hardly need be a doctor in order to do the giving. The gratification comes from the feeling that you’ve done something for people.”
Apparently, DeBakey’s genes have something to do with his longevity.
His father lived to be ninety, and his mother into her late eighties. He, like his parents shared similar values, exercised, ate healthfully and sought out intellectual stimulation from one day to the next. While we may not be blessed with the same genes as DeBakey, we have control over our own attitudes and many of our choices and communications. Humans have the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and can make adjustments over time.
He also made clear in his late nineties, that aside from the philosophical and social interaction and love shared between himself and his patients, “curiosity and the seeking of knowledge is a transcendent life force … it drives you intellectually and to an extent, physiologically.” When he goes to bed at night “he is looking forward to the morning so that he can do those things he was unable to accomplish on that day.”
I would add that I have gotten into the habit when I go to sleep to remember at least three things that I am grateful for at the end of the day. And, like Dr. DeBakey, I sometimes look forward to the simple things like having cereal the next morning, or doing Wordle or Spelling Bee. But I no longer do Spelling Bee while walking at the same time. I don’t think Michael DeBakey would encourage that, plus I’ve learned my lesson (See “Solo Trip” blog post in “off the hook” if you haven’t read it already).