THE Wichita, Kans., laborer could not climb stairs or walk more than a few steps without feeling an exasperating pain in his legs. He did not know it but the arteries leading to his legs were clogged with a fatty cholesterol-like substance—what physicians call an atheroma. But that was the least of his troubles. The deposits were also forming in the neck arteries that feed the brain. If nothing were done, Herman Key was headed for a stroke.

Complaining about the pain in his legs, Key, 54, was referred to Dr. Michael DeBakey, a world-famed vascular surgeon at Houston's Methodist Hospital. During...

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