WBU alum discusses changes in medicine over past four decades

March 3, 2010

PLAINVIEW – When Dr. Ken Mattox graduated from Wayland Baptist University in 1960, the world was a far different place in many aspects. Now, after participating in more than 70,000 operations all over the world as a renowned thoracic surgeon, Mattox can attest to many of those changes in his own career field.

A native of Clovis, Mattox came to Wayland in 1956 on ministerial and International Choir scholarships. He soon became fascinated with his science courses and opted to study medicine instead. Fast forward nearly 50 years and the years of medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, internships at the VA Hospital and many, many patients are far behind Mattox. But medicine is not.

Mattox serves as Chief of Staff at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston and is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, now teaching other up-and-coming surgeons. But he admits he’s done a lot of learning over the years as well.

“When I first came to Wayland, medicine was simpler. There were only two categories of antibiotics and little heart surgery was being done. There were no HMOs, and most people paid in cash or had limited insurance,” said Mattox, speaking to a group of Wayland science students and faculty members in a lecture held Feb. 26 as part of WBU’s homecoming festivities.

At that time, he noted, technology itself was not as advanced. The microchip had just been invented, the radio still had vacuum tubes and science students used huge desk calculators and slide rules.

By the time Mattox completed service in the U.S. Army and his medical school requirements and earned the position of Deputy Surgeon-in-Chief at Ben Taub in 1973, the landscape of medicine had already begun changing.

“The coronary bypass was being introduced, as well as heart valves, chemotherapy and trauma centers,” Mattox said, noting that organ transplantation was just beginning to become more common and HIV/AIDS had entered the healthcare arena. Computers were becoming more common as well, meaning the technology was about to create even more changes.

“We were pretty cutting edge in 1973, but about 50 percent of the procedures I was taught (in medical school) do not exist anymore,” Mattox noted. “About 50 percent of the approaches to surgery we use now were not available before 1980.”

Mattox addressed Wayland students pursuing careers in healthcare with advice on being prepared for the future in a field that is rapidly changing with technology and research. He encouraged students to know how to solve problems, to pay attention to detail, to develop a high work ethic and pursue perfection in all things. He also urged them to always take the hardest, high road in life. 

The doctor also noted that healthcare is local, so students need to be in touch with the community in which they are serving. When asked about the healthcare reforms being discussed in the news, Mattox said he believed some changes were needed, but not in the areas being debated.

“Is there a need for health economics reform? Yes, but only on the economics side,” Mattox said. “The need for reform now is an attempt at a redistribution of wealth and serving political issues. (The government) should being the stakeholders together for their input – those involved in healthcare delivery.

“Decisions like right to life should be between a patient and a doctor, not a political one.”

To conclude his time at the podium, Mattox briefly shared a presentation of his findings about what really happened to Princess Diana in her automobile wreck and subsequent death in 1997, one he said took seven years to compile. Using computer-generated recreations of the accident, x-rays and other medical evidence – Mattox laughingly said he was not telling from where they came – he pieced together that the cause of death was strangulation. Looking at wreck photos, he said that many claimed a conspiracy since the car did not suffer much damage on her side.

Apparently, the velocity of the wreck, coupled with Diana being turned sideways in the vehicle, caused her heart to move out of the heart cavity and into another chest cavity. That caused problems that surgeons were unable to repair once she reached the French hospital a few hours after the accident.

In 1990, Mattox was named Chief of Surgery and Chief of Staff at Ben Taub, positions he still holds. Since 1973, Mattox has also been a surgical consultant for the VA Hospital, active staff at The Methodist Hospital, active staff and attending physician at St. Luke’s Hospital, and courtesy staff at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Mattox was honored by his alma mater in 1986 with the Distinguished Alumni Award, 26 years after earning the highest student award as a senior, the Citizenship Award. He holds numerous professional memberships in the healthcare field, has served on boards and commissions and has received many honors for his life of service. He has also written and spoken extensively on various medical topics and his research interests are in medical trauma and thoracic surgery.

He and wife June, whom he met as a student while she served as Wayland’s first campus nurse, live in Houston.