News | Life’s Passages: St. Luke’s honors Dr. Bud Frazier
May 14, 2014
By Diane Cowen | Houston Chronicle
It's 11 a.m. and Dr. O.H. "Bud" Frazier is exhausted. He's performed more heart transplants than any other doctor in the world and he's just finished another.
The actual transplant takes just an hour or two, depending on complications, but the process of getting the donor heart to the waiting patient takes much coordination. This one was tricky: The plans changed four times and the patient had four prior surgeries, which makes the procedure more difficult.
"That's the nature of transplantation," said Frazier, whose titles at Texas Heart Institute, Baylor College of Medicine and CHI St. Luke's Health are numerous and lengthy. In a nutshell, though, he's the head of the heart transplant program at THI and a pioneer in the development of heart-assist devices such as the continuous-flow pump now used by surgeons around the world.
The work he's done and shared with others for more than 30 years is what's being celebrated in a fundraiser for St. Luke's and the Texas Heart Institute on Thursday at the St. Regis Houston.
Despite the many transplants, the ongoing research and training for medical students and working physicians, Frazier said that the most important work they've done is in developing heart-assist devices.
"One of the pumps we developed in our lab was first implanted in November of 2003. Already, more than 20,000 have been implanted around the world," he said, referencing a recent trip to Kazakhstan, where the devices are being used. "You've got to pinch yourself to think that these guys are in Kazakhstan. ... That's gratifying; these are life-saving devices."
Frazier's unlikely landing in the medical profession has been told many times. The Stephenville native studied English and history at the University of Texas. Just before graduating, he decided to pursue medicine. He crammed all of his pre-med courses into one year and ended up at Baylor College of Medicine. After a stint in the Army serving in Vietnam, Frazier returned to Houston wanting to do something worthwhile.
That was about the time that Drs. Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey were thinking beyond the boundaries any medical experts had considered before. They were working on heart-assist devices, such as artificial hearts and heart pumps, that could serve as a bridge for patients waiting for heart transplants, and Frazier was one of the medical students inspired by their work. Those surgeries are now performed at 180 hospitals across the country.
Nowadays, far more pumps are implanted than hearts, mostly due to availability. A transplant, of course, requires a donor. A man-made pump simply needs to be pulled off of a storage shelf, Frazier said.
His work with the continuous-flow pump is his most important contribution to medicine.
"When I came back from Vietnam in 1970, I decided to try to work for something worthwhile ... I'm gratified it has actually worked out," he said. "If you can achieve 50 percent of what you wanted, you are pretty accepting of that. If you'd asked me 10 years ago how many patients would be using these pumps, it never would have occurred to me it would be 20,000. That's the most gratifying thing to me."
The devices are still being perfected, and Frazier said newer versions may last 15 to 20 years. They're getting smaller and easier to work with, and he noted that one in development would be implanted through a vein so doctors wouldn't even have to open a patient's chest.
"I think we'll have a total heart replacement in five to 10 years," Frazier said, noting that he's reluctant to make such predictions.
While complimenting his mentors Cooley and DeBakey and the work of others working in cardiovascular medicine here, Frazier couldn't forget the philanthropic donors who made it all happen.
"One of the things people in Houston forget is that this wonderful medical center was developed mainly through philanthropy," Frazier said. "People forget this is the largest medical center in the world and has all of these talented people. We have the only lab devoted to medical-assist devices, and people come here from all over the world to train on these devices. Otherwise, none of these devices would exist ... they'd just be ideas floating around in my head.
"I had to have a facility to convert them into something real. I had to have the support and the facilities like we have at Texas Heart and the Texas Medical Center."