Houston Methodist’s new Walter Tower, at 6551 Bertner Avenue

"Oh my God, that’s a guy’s beating heart!”

An orderly had led us through tiny corridors, up a flight of stairs, and through a hallway so narrow and packed with boxes, we’d had to turn sideways. We’d found ourselves inside a dark, circular room fitted with benches; at its center was a glass dome emanating light. An attendant had told us that the area was available for a tour, but he hadn’t mentioned that the dome-covered operating room was occupied.

Yet inside it, there was a man on a table, surrounded by doctors. His chest was split wide open, his heart pulsating in the open cavity. We were shocked into silence as we took in the unexpected sight of the surgeons and staff performing an operation, moving around the room in almost choreographed motion, completely oblivious to onlookers.

Welcome to the legendary Fondren-Brown Operating Rooms at the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, the near-continuous scene of operations like this one since it opened its doors 50 years ago, as the Fondren-Brown Cardiovascular and Orthopedic Research Center. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to find the place in use.

“In both the cardiac surgery and vascular surgery worlds, a lot of the foundations for that were created in that operating room,” says Dr. Alan Lumsden, who has served as chief of cardiovascular surgery at the center since 2002 and is well-known as a leader in the field of endovascular surgery. “The names of the people who worked there are legend.”

The program, of course, was founded by its namesake, Dr. Michael DeBakey, the audacious, larger-than-life surgeon who arrived at Methodist in 1948 and pioneered a host of medical procedures and surgical tools that revolutionized heart surgery before his death in 2008.

DeBakey made open-heart surgery a reality by establishing the use of a roller pump to keep blood flowing during operations. He was also the first surgeon to remove blockage from a carotid artery, and the first to use vein grafts. His innovations extended beyond his own OR, too: His team recorded their operations on film, to be shared with other surgeons.

Early surgeries were recorded for the education of others in the field, an incredible innovation at the time.

From the beginning, DeBakey assembled a dream team unlike any the world had ever seen. He and Dr. George Noon, his surgical partner for 40 years, led the world’s very first multi-organ transplant at the Fondren-Brown OR the same year the center opened, 1968. The surgery required five operating rooms—one for the donor, and one for each of four recipients. These patients received two kidneys, a heart, and a lung from a single donor. It was an astonishing achievement.

A decade after his death, DeBakey’s personality—and the culture he created—still casts a long shadow in the aging hallways. It was only recently that someone finally removed the perpetually empty lab-coat peg bearing his name. “Nobody else hung their coat up on that thing, I can tell you,” Lumsden says.

DeBakey was known for his militaristic style and precise attention to detail. His Intensive Care Unit surgical rotation for second-year residents was notorious. For two months, residents weren’t allowed to leave the unit, forbidden to cross a red line taped to the floor.

“It was a boot camp on steroids,” recalls Dr. Michael Reardon, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Methodist who survived the brutal rotation to become known throughout the medical world for his work on cardiac tumors. “I saw grown men walk up to this red line and freeze.”

But DeBakey was loved by those who worked for him. He made them better doctors. “Once I survived two months in this very busy cardiac ICU,” Reardon says, “I knew I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to.”

While DeBakey became a household name along with his rival, fellow surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley, his team—Noon, Dr. Stanley Crawford, and Dr. Jimmy Frank Howell, among others—became stars in their own right.

Crawford, who served under DeBakey for 38 years, literally wrote the book—a medical textbook—on aortic diseases. “The guy was a legend,” Reardon explains. “These guys were international superstars.”

Dr. DeBakey and Dr. Noon, his surgical partner of 40 years, performed the world's first multi-organ transplant in the Fondren-Brown OR.

It’s no wonder, considering the vast number of patients who came through the program over the years.

“Back then there weren’t that many places doing advanced cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Mahesh Ramchandani, the program’s chief of cardiac surgery, recalling his arrival as a resident in 1988. “What we did was set the stage for where we are today.”

As one walks through the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, its history is palpable. But after decades of continuous operation—and thousands upon thousands of lives saved, belonging to people who previously would have been told to go home to their families and prepare for the end—the center is closing its doors as the team moves into a new building, Walter Tower.

It’s a necessary change that will provide new technology, bigger operating rooms, and more comfortable spaces for patients and their families. The staff is ready for the move, but still, something will be lost. There’s a sense of nostalgia among the physicians who have called the Fondren-Brown OR home over the years. “I’m going to be sad to be going to the new building,” Ramchandani says. “After 18 years in Room 4, you get used to a certain place.”

The new facility will have state-of-the-art, closed-circuit televisions, but there will be no more domed windows into the OR. Still, what began at Methodist half a century ago will continue as the current team sets new firsts in cardiovascular medicine. “What isn’t going to go away,” says Reardon, “is the culture of excellence that Dr. DeBakey and his colleagues created, that can-do culture that’s going to follow us.”

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