“Fifty years ago today, together with the assistance of a world-class team, right here (in Cape Town). He achieved what many believed to be impossible. And in so doing, woke up the world and united a nation, giving gravitas to the phrase ‘Proudly South African’.”
This was how Christiaan Barnard’s son, Christiaan Barnard jr, yesterday described the groundbreaking contribution his father made to the world on December 3, 1967 when he performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital.
Barnard, from Beaufort West, and his gifted cardio- thoracic team of 30, including his brother, Dr Marius Barnard, pushed the boundaries of science into the dawn of a new medical era.
The recipient was 53-year-old grocer Louis Washkansky, who had a debilitating heart condition.
Washkansky received the heart of Denise Darvall, who was run over by a car the previous day and declared brain dead.
Her father, Edward Darvall, agreed to the donation of his daughter’s heart and kidneys. After nine hours, the new heart in Washkansky’s chest was electrically shocked alive.
But Washkansky died of pneumonia 18 days after the transplant.
Barnard jr addressed medical experts from around the world who have gathered in Cape Town to honour Barnard’s legacy of courage and innovation at a three-day conference which ends today. It is estimated that more than 130000 successful heart transplants have been performed to date.
Barnard said Washkanky was more than a patient, but became a friend to his father.
“The memories I have of my father’s career are not only about his medical accomplishments and successes. What made him great was his passion and compassion towards humanity, (he was) more interested in patients than procedures, more interested in their quality of life and not just the number of days we get to live it.
“And it was this joy for life that made him the man he was, made him the doctor he was and made him the father that he was. He was indeed amazing,” Barnard jr said.
He described his father as a man of extreme intellect, unquestionable drive, undeniable work ethic, charismatic, humorous and at the same time vulnerable, yet strong.
“He faced some of his greatest battles professionally and personally. And he walked away from most victorious. Numerous times he was battered, bruised, but never defeated.
"Because his perseverance for the improvement and quality of life across all sectors, across all races, across all medical and political divides was resolute.
“I can’t wait for my young daughters to understand who their grandfather was,” Barnard jnr said.
‘‘The head of the Christiaan Barnard Department for Cardiothoracic Surgery at UCT, Professor Peter Zilla, said the transplant broke down the taboo barriers.
“His transplant created awareness in 1967 that heart operations are possible when cardiac surgery was a very young discipline. In today’s world, it epitomises cutting-edge medicine.
“We can push the boundaries, we can do things, we can find solutions for problems that are unresolved today,” Zilla said.
Magdi Yacoub, a cardiothoracic surgeon and professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the Imperial College London, said he was recently told that a colleague had said celebrating heart transplantation was irrelevant, because it has no place in modern medicine.
“I got very upset. I have great admiration for Chris Barnard. There just is no comparison between biology - a functional heart and a mechanical device.”
“After the transplant, Chris visited me many times.”