Denise Swart, 31, had a heart transplant in October and was back at home within days. Picture: Tracey Adams / ANA
Until six years ago, Denise Swart’s life was perfect. She was not only healthy but was doing what she enjoyed most - managing a strawberry farm.

However, at the age of 24, the life of the now 31-year-old Harrismith resident changed. One day, she struggled to walk up a small hill and became breathless.

“I knew immediately that this was not normal. I needed to be checked immediately,” said Swart.

Her doctor diagnosed her as having cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, where the heart becomes enlarged and sometimes scarred, making it difficult for it to pump blood.

Although she initially responded to treatment, two years ago her condition deteriorated, leaving her with only 18% of heart functionality.

In October she received a new heart at Groote Schuur Hospital, making her the 540th patient to receive a heart transplant since Professor Chris Barnard pioneered the operation at that hospital 50 years ago. The transplant came just a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant.

Because of Groote Schuur’s reputation for heart surgery, Swart says she didn’t think twice about undergoing a heart transplant there when she was given the choice between it and a Joburg hospital.

Johan Brink, an associate professor and head of the transplant department at Groote Schuur Hospital, who has worked at the hospital for 35 years, said that five decades after the first heart transplant the hospital continues to perform world-class surgery and still pioneers breakthroughs.

The latest innovation is heart surgery through the use of keyhole technology. While traditionally open-heart surgery is done by cutting through the breastbone, last year Groote Schuur became the first hospital in the country to perform an open-heart aortic valve replacement operation, using keyhole incision.

Last April, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Jack Scherman performed the ground-breaking procedure on Boniswa Simon, from Khayelitsha, who had a leaking aortic valve.

Surgeons opened a small, six-centimetre incision in his chest and inserted an endoscopic camera and tiny instruments to excise and replace the diseased heart valve, controlling the procedure while watching it on a monitor. Using a heart-lung machine, doctors stop the heart while operating on it.

The latest technology results in less surgical trauma, faster recovery times and fewer complications. In 1967, heart surgery patients recuperated for up to three months in hospital, whereas nowadays they stay for a few days only.

But now there are new challenges facing heart transplants - a shortage of organs.

While South Africa is a world leader in the field of organ transplantation, the number of patients waiting for transplants - 4300 - continues to increase, owing to a shortage of potential organ donors, with only two per million people a year in the country.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation said heart disease before the age of 65 could be prevented by healthy eating, exercise and not smoking.

Brink urged people to look after their hearts and to adopt healthy lifestyles.