On December 3, 1967, Dr Christiaan Neethling Barnard made history by performing the first ever human-to-human heart surgery. He not only performed an incredible feat but also thwarted many racial barriers by allowing mixed-race nurses in the operating room to transplant the heart of a white woman into a black man.
The heart transplant was a new and an advanced medical achievement for people, however, the technique Barnard used had been initiated in the 1950s by a group pf American researchers. Norman Shumway, an American surgeon, along with his colleague Richard Lower, had been working on heart transplants. They did the first ever heart transplant surgery on dogs but before they could perform it on humans successfully, Barnard did it.
In Barnard’s words, “It is infinitely better to transplant a heart than to bury it to be devoured by worms". The first heart transplant surgery was done with the help of a cardiothoracic team of thirty, lasting for a good 9 hours.
Denise Darvall was a young woman, suffering from brain damage and declared brain dead. Her father, Edward Darvall, agreed to the donation which included his daughter's heart and kidneys. The surgery started on a Saturday night and was finished the next morning. The recipient was Louis Washkansky, a grocer in Cape Town's Green point area.
Washkansky was enthusiastic about soccer, swimming and weightlifting and lived a healthy life until his first heart attack. His condition became severe in 1965 after his third heart attack, which left him suffering from congestive cardiac failure. Unfortunately, Washkansky was not able to survive. He died of pneumonia just eighteen days after his heart transplant.
It’s ironic that Barnard lost a brother at a very young age to a heart disease and went on to perform the first ever human heart transplant surgery. He performed the second surgery on January 2, 1968 and the recipient, Dr Philip Blaiberg, lived for 20 months after it. After that, every cardiologist followed his lead and by October 1971, 178 heart transplant surgeries were recorded across the world. To Barnard's credit, countless lives have been saved because of this medical wonder.