When she began the research process for her latest book, Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart, Mimi Swartz had to read a lot of books about the organ. Up first: “I literally had to start with children’s books about how the heart works,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’t a biology major.”
That research paid off for the Houstonian and longtime Texas Monthly executive editor. Her book weaves together three narratives: the lives and breakthroughs of Drs. Michael DeBakey, Denton Cooley, and O.H. "Bud" Frazier; the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center; and the current race to build an artificial heart. Part medical history and part literary drama, Ticker is a rich read that will make any Houstonian appreciate the medical innovations and breakthroughs that have shaped this city.
Houstonia chatted with Swartz before her reading of Ticker Tuesday, August 7, at the Houston Public Library, about what it was like witnessing a transplant, talking to famous heart surgeons, and whether she'd want an artificial heart herself.
How did you become interested in the creation of an artificial heart?
I moved here in ‘76—I'm from San Antonio originally. I was [in my twenties] at the time that doctors Cooley and DeBakey were these international superstars. You'd see them around town, and they were so glamorous, and DeBakey was so eccentric—and both of them were so charismatic. They were kind of irresistible, but at the time I didn't think much more than, ‘Oh there's this world-famous doctor.’ And then after the Enron collapse, I wrote a book about Enron, and then there was like 10 years in the wilderness where I kept trying to find another book I wanted to write and nothing seemed to work.
And then I went to lunch—I had an interview on another story—with an artist named Dario Robleto, who had just moved here from San Antonio. Dario is an amazing artist, but he's also this spectacular journalist, and he had done all this research on Cooley and DeBakey and Dr. Frazier, and I was listening to them, and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know Dr. Frazier, I thought about doing a book on Dr. Frazier,’ but then as I listened to Dario, I felt like this idiot because I realized that there was this 50-year span of heart research on the artificial heart, and that to me was a book. I knew about the feud with Cooley and DeBakey, and I knew that would be fun to write about. It was sort of like after 10 years in the wilderness, one hour-long lunch solved my 10-year dilemma. I went home, and in the next couple of weeks, wrote the proposal and sold it.
Tell me about following Dr. Frazier around in the hospital.
I went on rounds with him one day, and that kind of thing was very helpful. A lot of surgery. What I really thought was mind-blowing was watching these implantations, when they put [an artificial] heart in a calf. What was so mind-blowing was that you would walk into the lab after they put in an implant, and you'd look at this calf, and if nobody told you what the deal was, it looked like a totally normal calf who had no heart basically. The calf had this piece of titanium in its chest that was keeping it alive. And that was really weird, because you're seeing something you've never seen before.
Wow. What was it like watching a heart transplant?
I didn't know what to expect. On the one hand, it's very dramatic; on the other hand, it's like plumbing. They cut out this sick, oversized heart, and give it to a nurse who sends it to pathology, and then they take a new heart out of a cooler and sew it in. It's pretty amazing. It is otherworldly. It's routine until it isn't, that's the thing. Then something goes wrong, and you better know what you're doing.
You’ve written about Enron and now the Texas Medical Center and Denton and Cooley and Frazier. You choose very Houstonian subjects to write about.
I just think Houston is endlessly interesting. My husband makes this joke that you can't walk out your front door without falling over a good story, and I think it's really true. The stories are good here, there are so many interesting people to write about, and it's fun to explain it to other people in other places, and to kind of explain that the stereotype of Texans is not really true. Or sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.
That's a theme that's come up in Ticker a lot—these heart surgeons were like cowboys, in all their medical breakthroughs.
Well there weren't regulations, so they really could try whatever. One of my favorite stories is ‘I heard that Cooley put a pig's heart in somebody,’ and I was interviewing [someone], and I said, ‘I know this isn't true, but I have to ask this question—did Cooley put a pig's heart in somebody?’ and she looked at me and she didn't even blink, and she said, ‘Oh no, it was a sheep.’
It was just a different world. It was messy before regulation. It was very different, and—for good or for ill—doctors tried whatever they thought might save somebody's life.
On that note, what was Dr. Cooley like?
I knew him and talked to him when he was older. He was—even in his old age—still startling attractive. He was very charming, very funny. In some ways he was very quiet and into himself. But if he was comfortable, he was very funny. The case really can be made that he was the best surgeon who ever lived. People may remember that or they may not. It's a question of how much time passes and how much is written about him I guess.
That's what's so interesting to me about history—it gets lost. If people aren't writing it down and telling these stories, it's just gone. What they did was truly amazing. Not just in surgery but in what they built, physically.
You said that your dad was sick when you were writing the book. How did that influence your writing process?
My father died at 90. He came to live with us when he was about 86 or 87. He had vascular dementia, so he really couldn't live on his own. In a weird way, it was helpful to me because the questions of life and death were more immediate for me. I was dealing with them myself while I was watching these doctors deal with them and watching patients deal with them.
It just made me think more about quality of life. I sort of thought—well what if [an artificial heart] were perfected? Would I put it in my father? And the answer was no. And I thought, well, what if I needed it? And the answer was well, maybe. You know, and if I were your age and that was my only option, then I'd do it for sure. And I think most people are like that. That was one thing that struck me about the book—was that a lot of people will do a lot of things to stay alive.
What do you want Houstonians to take from Ticker?
I would hope they would want to know about their history and enjoy knowing about this really unbelievable period in the life of the city. It's an inspirational story, and Houston's an inspirational place. I think there are a lot of things here that could use some help, so maybe they'll want to become more engaged in the life of the city they live in.
Mimi Swartz, in conversation with Maggie Galehouse. Free. Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney St. More info at brazosbookstore.com.