When Denton Cooley, 95, reflects on his storied career as a pioneering cardiovascular surgeon, he admits that he made some judgment errors as a young physician. Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute in 1962 and performed the first implant of a total artificial heart.
As a 26-year-old serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Austria, Cooley received a special invitation from a famous surgeon. Alfred Blalock was leading a European tour to demonstrate a new surgical operation called the Blalock-Taussig procedure, and he asked Cooley to come along.
Cooley had worked with Blalock at Johns Hopkins University, and he didn’t take Blalock’s invitation lightly. But Cooley was an avid tennis player and he wanted to compete in a tennis tournament in Bremen.
Weighing his options, Cooley decided to indulge his passion for tennis. But he couldn’t bring himself to admit that to Blalock, so he lied: He told Blalock that the army would not grant him leave to travel around Europe.
“It was one of my dumbest-ever decisions, which I regret to this day,” he says.
As it turns out, Cooley lost in the first round of the tournament. And by declining Blalock’s invitation, Cooley lost out to another young doctor who gained much prestige by joining the European tour. Blalock’s visits to London and Paris ultimately influenced cardiac surgery in Europe for decades to come.
“If I’d made a better choice, I could have shared that experience,” he says.
— Adapted from 100,000 Hearts, Denton Cooley, Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas.