First human heart transplant (1967)

First human heart transplant (1967)
Groote Schuur Hospital was placed center-stage in the world’s spotlight when Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant on the December 3, 1967. Sadly, Louis Washkansky (pictured left) only lived for 18 days, succumbing in the end to pneumonia. His new heart beat strongly to the end.

Barnard was born in the town of Beaufort West, on the edge of the great Karoo, the dry and arid interior of South Africa, in 1922. His father was a preacher and there were four boys in the family. He did well at school, learned music and played sport, and decided on leaving school to study medicine at the University of Cape Town. After six years he graduated and did internship and residency at Groote Schuur Hospital and Peninsula Maternity. He then joined a colleague and moved to a small town, Ceres, and married Louwtjie.

The seeds of his future career were sown when one of his patients delivered a baby boy with a heart defect which could not be remedied. The baby died, causing him to think deeply about this and foresee the need for remedial surgery and the replacement of heart valves.

Back in Cape Town he studied further for his doctorate in Medicine, but heart surgery pre-occupied him. The heart-lung machine was in its infancy in the USA and considered too dangerous to use in surgical procedures. Chris proceeded with research and more study, working in converted rooms at night at minimal expense.

A turning point came when he was offered a chance to work in Minneapolis, USA, under Professor Wagensteen, a great teacher of experimental surgery. The heart lung machine was perfected and this was the gateway to cardiac surgery. The idea of transplanting occurred to Chris. If it was possible with kidneys, why not the heart? After more years of study in USA he returned to SA with a wonderful parting gift from Prof Wagensteen - a heart-lung machine.

Groote Schuur Hospital was waiting his return in 1958 to start the first heart unit to perform a cardiac bypass operation. The core of the heart transplant team of the future was formed when the heart lung machine arrived. Chris was again involved in much experimental work and research, and took courses in immunology in USA where immuno -suppressive agents had been developed.

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, 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 December 3, 1967 the team emerged from nine 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.