Friday, August 26, 2011

Dinner With "Big Mike"

Michael DeBakey was an internationally known cardiovascular surgeon and a pioneer.  He was an unparalleled innovator and leader in American surgery.  At age 23 he invented the technology which became the central component to the heart-lung bypass machine, which revolutionized cardiac surgery.   At the time that I was a resident in General Surgery, Dr. DeBakey was one of the genuine giants of American medicine.  Having dinner with Dr. Debakey as a mere surgical resident would be the medical equivalent of a little leaguer having dinner with Mickey Mantle.  
In the early 1980s, Dr. DeBakey was invited to the Medical College of Virginia by then Chairman of Surgery, Dr. Lazar Greenfield, who was no slouch in the medical innovation department either. (  The Surgery Department routinely hosted a dinner for visiting professors and included the Chief Surgical Residents.  For whatever reason (Dr. Greenfield wanted more people at the dinner, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for most residents, whatever) the Senior Residents (me included) were invited to dinner with Dr. DeBakey.
The first challenge was finding a sport coat that fit and a tie and shirt that weren’t a mass of wrinkles.  The second was to try to stay awake through the entire event.  The third challenge was to not embarrass ourselves or the department in front of Dr. DeBakey.  That last challenge meant that no one would dare get more than one drink. 
I arrived at the old Bull and Bear Club in downtown Richmond and surveyed the room.  Dr. DeBakey was holding court near the bar.  Dr. Greenfield was hovering.  Dr. DeBakey was not a particularly imposing physical presence.  He was an older man, was a bit stooped and looked more like a college professor than the foremost cardiothoracic surgeon in the world.  The residents milled around and eventually Dr. Greenfield introduced each of us to “Big Mike.”  He seemed genuinely disinterested.
As the final preparations were made to serve dinner, my pager went off.  I went out in the hall, answered the page and solved whatever dilemma had been posed by my junior resident.   I returned to the dining room to find that everyone had taken a seat.  There was one long table set for dinner, with Dr. DeBakey sitting smack in the middle on one side.  I looked for an open place, expecting to find one discreetly on one end of the long table or the other.  I finally realized that the only open seat was directly across the table from “Big Mike” himself!
 “Holy shit!”  I thought, “I have to sit across from the most prominent surgeon in the world?”
I cautiously took my seat, put my napkin in my lap and tried to remember which stupid fork to use first.   Big Mike glanced up from his salad and emitted something of a grunt of acknowledgement.  I started to sweat a bit and my appetite disappeared.  Fortunately I was sitting next to a Chief Resident named Brad.  Brad had a baby face despite the fact that he was a few years older than the rest of us.  He served two tours as an infantryman in Viet Nam before coming home and going to college and medical school.  He didn’t intimidate easily.  After a few minutes Brad tried to pick up the chatter with his fellow residents.  Afraid of saying something which would expose our obvious stupidity, we all muttered monosyllabic responses. 
Finally Brad took a big breath and almost shouted “Dr. DeBakey!”
Big Mike looked up from his entrée and raised his bushy eyebrows in response.
“Dr. DeBakey, when I’m doing a vascular bypass and need a forcep, I ask the scrub nurse for a ‘DeBakey.’  What do you ask for?”
There was a long pause as Dr. DeBakey considered his response and we all collectively held our breath.
“Son, if I hold out my hand for an instrument and the nurse doesn’t know what I want, she’s fired.”
The rest of the meal passed in relative silence.  Dr. DeBakey had certainly made an impression.  The next day we all went back to our plebian existence, but none of us ever forgot dinner with Big Mike.

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