The Shah of Iran was on the operating table and already anesthetized in the Maadi Hospital near Cairo. Famed Houston surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey was preparing to cut. Suddenly a transducer in the equipment that DeBakey had brought from the U.S. to record blood pressure and pulse during the operation failed. A reserve transducer was plugged in; it would not function either. Apparently both devices had been damaged in transit. A transducer from Maadi Hospital was quickly installed, and it worked (to the prideful delight of the Egyptians present). DeBakey seemed “very anxious” during the brief delay, an Egyptian doctor reported. Once the operation began, however, the Shah’s cancerous spleen was removed without difficulty.
For DeBakey, high medical drama amidst international intrigue is almost routine. He treated the Duke of Windsor and has served as consultant to Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) and kings (Hussein of Jordan). When the Shah, 60, requested his help, DeBakey did not hesitate. He flew first to Panama to examine the deposed monarch, then to Cairo. “We weren’t in any way concerned with the political aspects,” DeBakey explains. “We were trying to take care of a sick man. Anyone who would deny medical treatment to a suffering patient has to have something wrong with him.”
DeBakey, 71, clearly relishes his worldwide eminence. He travels 100,000 miles and performs more than 1,500 operations every year. He has 20 full-and part-time secretaries, is adviser to 50 organizations and walks several miles a day just making his rounds. “I’ve given up all my so-called hobbies,” admits DeBakey, who once loved to draw and play the saxophone, “because none of them can really compete with my interest in surgery.” PEOPLE correspondent Kent Demaret talked with DeBakey about his recent frenetic schedule.
How did you get involved with the Shah?
I was asked by Dr. Benjamin Kean of New York, who was the Shah’s physician, if I would go down to Panama. We got into trouble because the doctors were a little upset by some of the news media interpretation that they couldn’t do the operation locally. I decided that it was unwise to do the operation there.
The climate wasn’t good. The medical people had a certain resentment and hostility, and I didn’t think all of the facilities were that good either.
How were the conditions in Cairo?
Excellent. I’d operated in that hospital before, so I knew the place.
How long did the surgery take and what did it involve?
It took a little over an hour. We made a midline incision about eight to 10 inches long. The spleen was about 10 times the normal size.
Did you have to deal with the U.S. Administration before the surgery?
No. Hamilton Jordan stopped by Houston before we went to Panama to have me give him a medical assessment of the situation, which I did.
Do you have any personal concern about political extremists as a result of your treatment of the Shah?
I haven’t had any evidence that they are directing any hostility toward me. Naturally, we had some concern about security, but in general I think that was fairly well taken care of. We certainly had good security in Egypt. And we have security now.
There was a rumor that the Ayatollah Khomeini, who has heart problems, might be looking for your help. Have you had any contact with him?
No, none at all.
Would you treat Khomeini?
If I was asked, certainly I would. I would give him the best care I could.
What is your fee for an operation such as you performed for the Shah?
Whenever I’m abroad, I am working with my colleagues and I feel this is a service I am doing. Several of them in the Cairo hospital were trained by me. There is no fee in such cases. They [the Shah] will pay expenses, that’s all.
On another matter, in January you consulted on Yugoslavian President Tito’s condition. What did you recommend?
President Tito had an arterial blockage in his leg. I recommended that they not operate, because the type of blockage he had was not amenable to any type of surgical treatment. In fact, I said it would be dangerous. They disregarded my advice, and of course he developed gangrene, just as I predicted he would. Then they had to amputate his leg.
How did the Shah feel the last you heard?
He was eating, walking around and improving rapidly. His blood and bone-marrow functions have returned to normal. His spirit is much better. Everybody is showing him kindness and love and affection and warmth.
Are there any complications?
No. I’m receiving reports every day. He’s doing beautifully. The doctors will resume treatment with chemotherapy for his cancer in a few days. I expect him to do extremely well and to live a long time.