They Blew Up A Building Where DeBakey Made Surgical History and I Was Almost Born


Do all buildings hold secrets like this? Likely so. I just happen to know these two.

Above you can see the planned implosion, carried out yesterday, of the decades-old Macy’s department store (formerly Foley’s’ department store) in downtown Houston. When Samuel Arbesman alerted me to a notice of this at The Atlantic Cities site, I quickly jumped there to watch, for this particular building holds two bits of history I hold dear.

The first is that I was almost born in the parking garage. Okay, I exaggerate: My mom’s labor quickened there, and she easily enough cut her shopping trip short and drove a couple miles to the Methodist Hospital, where I emerged a few hours later. Seventeen years later, my dad took me there to buy me my first suit.

The more interesting bit of history, which my father first told me over beers about ten years ago, and which I later found corroborated elsewhere, is that back in the 1950s, cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey made here, in the Foley’s women’s lingerie department, a key discovery in cardiac surgery — an event my dad knew of because he did his surgical training under DeBakey at about the same time.

DeBakey and his team at the time were in a race with French cardiac surgeons to solve all sorts of cardiac surgery problems. This race sped the development of tools and techniques that would, a decade later, allow the first open-heart surgeries. One puzzle they faced was how to successfully treat aortic aneurysms — the ballooning and thinning, and then bursting, of that main, biggest vessel carrying blood away from the heart.

That particular race started with stents — tubes that could be wrapped around or slipped within burgeoning or burst blood vessels to reinforce them — applied in aneurysms in the upper thigh, where the vessels weren’t’ too big and failure was more survivable. From there, DeBakey’s team and the French team worked their ways up toward the heart (and on bigger and bigger arteries) with better and better solutions. DeBakey was first, for instance, in 1952, to repair a dissected (splitting) aortic aneurysm with a cadaver stent. But those, like stents made of pig arteries, but would grow fragile. Synthetics held promise, and for a while, nylon looked like it might do — until the nylon stents started wearing out.

DeBakey liked the nylon otherwise though. So one afternoon he drove down to Foley’s and looked for something better. Maybe they’d have a thicker nylon or something. A saleswoman, offering to help, said, No, they didn’t have anything thicker than the stockings DeBakey was already fondling, but, as my father relayed the diction and accent some 50 years later, “They do have this new thang, now, they’re callin the New Nylon. It’s Dacron.” And she handed him a stocking.

DeBakey saw it, stretched it, liked it. Then — don’t tell the Institutional Review Boards, folks — he took that stocking home; used his wife’s sewing scissors and sewing machine to fashion it into a sort of reinforced tube;  took it to the hospital next morning, sterilized it, and used it to repair an aortic aneurysm. It worked.

Michael DeBakey sewing up some aortic stents.

Thus was born the DeBakey stent, which turned out to last years, and provided for the first time aortic stents that weren’t certain to require risky surgery later for repair. For several decades, until something fancier replaced it a while back, the Debakey stent was a staple in every OR. It saved many a life.

And yesterday the blew up the building where he found it. There should be a plaque. Or maybe not: Cardiologists hate plaque.