A Career in Medicine Could Not Save Him

April 22, 2021  |  Mesothelioma
Renowned heart surgeon lost his life to mesothelioma

Renowned heart surgeon lost his life to mesothelioma

By all accounts, Michael Thomas Hackler had the world by the tail. The idea that he might be struck down in his prime and lose his life to malignant mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by the inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers, seemed inconceivable to him and anyone who knew him.

A Scholar and Athlete

The renowned cardiovascular surgeon, born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1947, moved with his parents to Port Allen, Louisiana, when he was just a child. A standout athlete and scholar, Mike Hackler graduated high school in 1965 as valedictorian, student body president, football team captain, and “most valuable athlete”. Following high school, he attended Louisiana State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. While there, he held the title of student body president of the College of Engineering, was named a Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities & Colleges, and was in the top three percent of all engineering students in the United States.

Mike then pursued a medical degree at Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine in Shreveport, graduating in 1977 in the top 25 percent of his class. There, too, he was class president in his junior and senior years. Concurrently with his studies, he served in the Louisiana National Guard from 1970 to 1977, during which time he completed basic training and advanced training, was awarded a commission to Officer Candidate School, and then completed officer training.

After medical school, Mike Hackler served a five-year internship and residency in general surgery at the University of South Carolina’s Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia. He followed that with a two-year fellowship in cardiovascular surgery at the University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences in Memphis. He held memberships in the American Medical Association, Southern Medical Association, Louisiana State Medical Society, East Baton Rouge Parish Medical Society, Baton Rouge Surgical Association, Baton Rouge Cardiovascular Society, Society of Thoracic Surgeons and the American Heart Association.

Once his schooling had concluded, Dr. Hackler joined the CVT Surgical Center in Baton Rouge in 1984, where he enjoyed a distinguished career for 21 years as a leading heart surgeon and partner in the largest heart surgery practice in Louisiana. But there was more to the man than just his love of cardiovascular repair.

The “Rose Doctor”

In addition to his robust medical practice, Dr. Hackler was an elder and active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge. He traveled extensively to assist less-developed countries in setting up medical facilities and houses of worship. He frequently performed surgery and provided other medical services to the underprivileged without regard for their ability to pay.

Mike Hackler was also a lover of growing roses, fawning over an abundant rose garden at his home in whatever spare time he found. On Sunday mornings, he would often present freshly cut roses to the parishioners at his church, who came to refer to him affectionately as the “rose doctor”.

By every measure, Michael Thomas Hackler led a successful, fulfilling and joyful life. Besides a brilliant mind and a generous heart, he kept himself in top physical condition.

An Ominous Sign

Then, in 2001, a childhood friend of Dr. Hackler’s stunned the surgeon by saying that he’d just been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare but very aggressive cancer caused by exposure to fibers of the mineral asbestos. Within a short time, another childhood friend received the same diagnosis. The fact that a disease caused solely by exposure to asbestos and so rare that it develops in only 0.0009 percent of the population each year had now been found in two close friends from Dr. Hackler’s youth made the 54-year-old surgeon’s hair stand on end.

Dr. Hackler knew what it meant. As students, the three young men had taken summer jobs at the Port of Baton Rouge, where their primary role was to unload sacks of raw asbestos fiber transported by cargo ships across the ocean from Africa. Dr. Hackler suspected it would only be a matter of time before he was diagnosed with an asbestos disease, too.

Hazardous Employment

Unloading 140-pound sacks of raw asbestos all summer long over several years would have been dangerous enough. The tiny mineral fibers could easily filter through the seams and corners of the bags as they were hoisted from the ship’s cargo hold and carried by Mike and his friends off the ship to be stacked onto trucks or pallets. All that juggling of bags likely released asbestos dust into the air around the young men. But there was an even deadlier component to the job. Part of their duties included breaking open every 100th sack and sifting through the raw fiber in search of contraband drugs being smuggled into the country. Just like plunging one’s hands into a sack of flour and stirring it up, these routine inspections caused thick asbestos dust to rise up into the faces of Mike and his schoolmates. They couldn’t help but inhale millions of the toxic fibers, hour after hour, day after day.

The fibers of asbestos are microscopic in size. They can be inhaled through the nose and mouth or ingested when inadvertently swallowed. Unfortunately, the same properties which make the fibrous mineral so impervious to heat, fire and corrosive substances also provide asbestos fibers with the unique ability to withstand the body’s natural defenses. The sharp, narrow particles settle into the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart where they can fester, undetected, for decades, slowly building up scar tissue as the body struggles to isolate the intruding strands. In rare cases, the microscopic fibers can cause cancerous cells to develop in the body’s mesothelium, the sac-like membrane which lines and protects most of our internal organs. The result, malignant mesothelioma, is the dreaded diagnosis that Dr. Hackler’s two longtime friends received.

A Deadly Diagnosis

It took almost five years after the diagnosis of his two classmates before Michael Thomas Hackler received his own finding of malignant mesothelioma in November of 2005. The cancer was advanced, and he was given only three months to live. Yet, once again proving this remarkable man could excel at almost anything — and perhaps because he was in such excellent physical shape — Dr. Hackler far outlived his prognosis, not succumbing to the deadly cancer until two years later, on August 26, 2007.

One tends to think of asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma, as illnesses associated with the blue-collar trades of the mid-20th century, when exposure to asbestos occurred frequently in factories, refineries, paper mills and chemical plants. That this prominent and beloved heart surgeon was struck down by a disease more commonly found among pipefitters and boilermakers than distinguished medical specialists came as a shock to the southern Louisiana community in which the renowned physician lived and worked.

Anyone Is Vulnerable

Asbestos disease does not discriminate. Anyone who was exposed to asbestos can develop asbestosis, lung and colon cancers, and malignant mesothelioma, often decades after initial exposure. What’s worse, the risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases does not lessen over time, even after the exposure to asbestos stops. The peril is lifelong. If you are considering filing a lawsuit for your mesothelioma diagnosis, it is important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Baron & Budd can help. Contact us online or call us at 855-280-7664 for a confidential evaluation and to learn more about your legal options.

Michael Hackler obituary, 8/28/07
Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma Know No Boundaries, Asbestos.com 7/22/11
Key Statistics About Malignant Mesothelioma, America Cancer Society

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