Back in time: The First Heart Transplant of the World

Back in time: The First Heart Transplant of the World

Credit: Catherine Lane 2015

While manking was ready to land on the moon, the first heart transplant was happening.

The heart is the most sensitive organ of our body after brain. It is responsible for keeping us alive as it transports oxygen via blood to all the cells in our body. As a result, its performance is extremely vital for human life. Transplantation of organs like kidney and liver is a much more common practice than a heart transplantation. The reason for this is that there are a lot of complexities associated with this operation and the risks are very high as well. This type of surgery is considered the last resort where the life of a patient cannot be saved by any other alternative. Usual cases include end-stage heart failure and severe coronary artery disease.

The most commonly used method for transplanting a heart is to take a functioning heart from a recently deceased person and plant it in the body of the patient. You may require one or both lungs as well to perform a successful completion of the entire procedure. The heart of the patient is generally removed from his body afterward. Having said that, there are cases where the heart of the patient stays inside his body to assist the donor’s heart. A common name for this process is ‘piggybank’. The effects of this surgery stay with you for a long while. The best indicator in this regard is the average recovery time after operation, which is 15 years.

Dr. Chrisitiaan Barnard performing firs heart transplant of the world

The man who proposed this solution for the first time was an American medical researcher called Simon Flexner. The world’s first human to human heart transplant surgery was done by Christiaan Barnard of South Africa. He was a cardiac surgeon who utilized the research of Norman Shumway and Richard Lower. He had the history of performing well as a doctor. He started his medical career in his hometown, Beaufort West. He managed to explore a cure for infant defect of intestinal atresia. The technique adopted by him saved 10 babies in Cape Town and he was approached by reputed surgeons in the United States and the United Kingdom. He chose the US and worked with open heart surgery pioneer Walt Lillehei.

He performed the first ever human heart transplant surgery on 3rd December 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town. This event gave the boundaries of medical science a great push. Barnard had years of experience of doing heart surgeries before that but doing a heart transplant was a risky proposition irrespective of your expertise with hearts. He had a team of 30 people which decided to give it a go and proposed 80% chances of success.

The recipient of the first heart transplant surgery was ‘Lewis Washkansky’. He was 53 years of age at that time and his heart was becoming weak and weak. The donor of that historic surgery was a 25-year old girl by the name of Denise Darvall. She was badly injured in a road accident. She was run over by a car and has suffered serious brain damage. She was declared brain-dead before the surgery was performed. Her father Edward Darvall agreed to donate her kidneys and heart. The operation began shortly after midnight and ended at about 6 am in the morning. The heart was electrically started after it was set in the chest of Washkansky. On regaining consciousness, he did manage to talk. He walked a couple of times as well but couldn’t recover as pneumonia stuck with him and proved fatal. The weakening of his immune system to allow the new heart to gel with the body was the reason that he could not fight that disease.

Although Washkansky could not recover and died, the donor’s heart worked perfectly fine till his death. As scientists researched further after this massive breakthrough, they did manage to develop better anti-rejection drugs in the 1970s which improved the transplantation procedure. Dr. Barnard continued with his surgeries and by the end of the 70s, his patients were able to live up to 5 years after their surgeries.

Heart transplantation surgeries are being performed very successfully in this day and age but the major difficulty lies in finding the right donor. It is the most critical part of this procedure as organ rejection is one of the most common complications associated with this type of surgery.

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