NEW YORK (AP) – Dr. Michael DeBakey says he was reluctant to undergo the heart operation he pioneered because, at his age, he feared it might leave him mentally or physically crippled, if he survived it.

“I’d rather die,” he told The New York Times in a rare interview for its Monday editions.

Nearly a year later, DeBakey, 98, is the oldest survivor of the operation he developed to repair a damaged aorta, the main artery from the heart. He is back to working nearly full days and walks increasingly longer distances, but he mainly gets around with a motorized scooter.

“It is a miracle,” DeBakey said. “I really should not be here.”

DeBakey is considered the father of modern cardiovascular surgery, pioneering now common procedures such as bypass surgery and inventing a host of devices to help heart patients. He talked with the Times about his operation and recovery.

When the pain first charged through his chest at the end of last year in his Houston home, he said he assumed his heart would soon stop.

“It never occurred to me to call 911 or my physician,” he said. “As foolish as it may appear, you are, in a sense, a prisoner of the pain, which was intolerable. You’re thinking, what could I do to relieve myself of it. If it becomes intense enough, you’re perfectly willing to accept cardiac arrest as a possible way of getting rid of the pain.”

Before DeBakey developed the operation to repair torn aortas, his condition would likely have been fatal.

At age 97, it was still risky for him. DeBakey at first gambled that his aorta would heal on its own and refused to be admitted to a hospital.

He was unresponsive and near death when his doctors and his wife decided to proceed.

DeBakey was discharged from the hospital in May but readmitted in June because of high blood pressure and heart rate. He was released in September.

As he recovered, DeBakey told his doctors he was glad they had operated, despite his earlier refusals.

“If they hadn’t done it,” he said, “I’d be dead.”

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