First U.S. heart transplant: May 3, 1968

Dr. Denton Cooley, already recognized as a top heart surgeon makes history when he performs the first heart transplant in the U.S. at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. The patient is a 47-year-old man named Everett Thomas who’s dying of a rheumatoid heart condition, the donor, a 15-year-old girl who had committed suicide.  Though her brain had stopped functioning, the teenager’s heart is still beating and Cooley moves quickly to transfer the organ.

The procedure worked well enough for Thomas to leave the hospital and live for another seven months.  And although the world’s first heart transplant had actually occurred in South Africa the previous December, Cooley soon became a leader in the revolutionary surgery, performing 22 more transplants over the next year, including three within one five-day period.

Cooley had already refined surgical techniques to correct congenital heart anomalies in infants and children, to bypass clogged coronary arteries and to repair aortic aneurysms. He had helped perfect methods for repairing and replacing diseased heart valves. He also helped develop the heart/lung machine, which makes modern cardiac surgery possible.

In 1969, he took another groundbreaking step, performing the world’s first operation in which an artificial heart was implanted in a human—a suitable heart wasn’t available. The patient lived only 65 hours, but Cooley was celebrated as a cardiac surgery pioneer.

He did, however, come under harsh criticism from his former associate, Dr. Michael DeBakey, another world-renowned surgeon who felt that Cooley had unethically used an artificial heart that the two of them had developed together.  That sparked one of the medical community’s most famous feuds—the two didn’t speak for almost 40 years before reconciling just a year before DeBakey died at the age of 99 in 2008.

From the 1960s through the turn of the 21st century, Cooley and his team at the Texas Heart Institute, which he opened in Houston, performed more than 100,000 open heart surgeries. Cooley himself personally repaired 12,000 aortic aneurysms during his career.  His autobiography, published in 2012, is titled “100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon’s Memoir.”

Once, when testifying at a trial, a lawyer asked Cooley if he considered himself the best heart surgeon in the world.  When he answered, “Yes,” the attorney replied, “Don’t you think that’s being rather immodest?”  To which Cooley responded, “But remember I’m under oath.”

During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, George W. Bush asked Cooley to review the medical records of vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, who had a long history of heart problems. Cooley said Cheney could handle the role.

Today, about 3,500 heart transplants are done every year, most of them—2,000 to 2,300—in the U.S. And the survival rate continues to increase.  Now about 73 percent of male heart recipients live at least five years; the figure for women is slightly lower, about 69 percent. The longest living heart transplant patient was Tony Huesman, who died of cancer in 2009, 31 years after receiving his heart.

Among the recipients of a heart transplant in 2012 was the man whose records Cooley had checked out in 2000--former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cooley didn’t put down his scalpel until his 87th birthday. Now 94, he still lives in Houston.

More history slices

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First LSD hallucination: April 16, 1943

The Twinkie invented: April 6, 1930

First artificial heart: April 4, 1969

First batch of Coca-Cola:  March 29, 1886