For 40 years, two men with Texas-size egos perpetrated medicine’s most famous feud. The bad blood involved two of the world’s greatest heart surgeons, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey and Dr. Denton A. Cooley. As partners, they pioneered life-saving heart operations at Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital in Houston in the 1950s,
In 1966, Dr. DeBakey became the first to successfully implant a partial artificial heart — a left ventricular assist device — in a patient. In 1968, DeBakey’s protégé Dr. Cooley performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States.
Then in 1969, Cooley, without approval from Dr. DeBakey, obtained an experimental artificial heart from his former partner’s lab and became the world’s first doctor to implant a completely robotic heart in a patient. Thus began four decades of rivalry, creative isolation and duplication of resources such that Dr. Cooley called the short distance between their operating rooms “a demilitarized zone.”
The competition between DeBakey and Cooley created a situation where wealthy donors, referring physicians, and even patients had to choose sides. People were confused, bad feelings boiled and redundancy of services and unnecessary costs were incurred simply because of the stubborn, self-absorbed brilliance of two medical superstars.
The reality is that competition, whether healthy or not, is an inevitable part of the human condition, manifesting early even between the first sons of Adam and Eve. The dark, detrimental side of competition is when the activity is defined by mutually exclusive goal attainment, more simply put as “my success requires your failure” or even your death.