“South Africa is a world leader in the field of organ transplantation. On 3 December 1967 Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.”
The patient was Mr Louis Washkansky and he died 18 days after the transplant for pneumonia. Even though the passing of Mr Louis Washkansky was soon after the transplant, the heart itself was not the cause of death. This innovation in medical history, pivoted the credibility of South Africa in 1967. Dr Christiaan Barnard, put South Africa on the map with this break through.
This year marks the momentous 50th anniversary of that great achievement.
“Back in SA he (Dr Barnard) prepared for kidney transplants and built up surgical expertise. From the legal aspect there had to be clear rules to remove organs from the human body and criterion of death. He performed the first kidney transplant at Groote Schuur on Mrs Edith Black and everything functioned perfectly. It was hailed as a major surgical event in SA. Professor Val Schrire, who had built up the Cardiac Clinic, was informed by Chris in October 1967:”Everything is ready for a heart transplant. We have the team and we know how to do it.”
In November Prof Schrire called Chris and told him that there was a suitable patient for a heart transplant. Louis Washkansky was suffering from gross heart failure with a short time to live and was prepared to take the chance. One can say the rest is history. A series of events were set in motion which led to the first human heart transplant, a remarkable feat.
A young woman, Denise Darvall, had been struck by a car and suffered severe brain damage. Her father did not hesitate when approached for permission to donate her organs. On 3 December 1967 the team emerged from 9 hours of operating and suddenly international attention was focused on Groote Schuur Hospital. The first heart transplant could not have been achieved without the skill and support of a large team – Cardiologists, Radiologists, Anaesthetists, Technicians, Nurses, Immunologists, Pathologists, and in particular, Prof Val Schrire, head of the Cardiac Clinic.
The original theatre where this transplant was performed has been turned into a museum in honour of these pioneers of medicine, and to the first donor and recipient.”
The procedure of the heart transplant has been pivotal in extending lives, however a donor match becomes complicated. Professor Barnard however was the pioneer in driving the procedure research, and proving that it could be done. With that action, the world took notice of the potential, skill and competence that could be found within South Africa. The world lost the pioneer on the 2 September 2002. He died at the age of 78 in Greece from acute asthma attack. The world still remembers the innovation of his time, celebrates the great steps he took to lead the medical fraternity. He will always be remembered as an icon.
This article was written by Lathasha Subban, Head: Knowledge and Innovation of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP). For more information, you can follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1 or visit their website on www.sabpp.co.za