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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 19:33 GMT


Heart pioneer defends record

Christiaan Barnard talks candidly about the first heart transplant

South African surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard won worldwide acclaim more than 30 years ago for performing the first heart transplant but not without controversy which continues to this day.

His critics attacked him as soon as the operation was performed.

He was dubbed a "surgical opportunist" amid claims he had piggy-backed on 10 years of experimental legwork by a former university classmate, Dr Norman Shumway of California - an allegation which has since been withdrawn.

Speaking in an interview to BBC News 24's HARDtalk programme, Dr Barnard is unrepentant and said he owed little or nothing to Dr Shumway.

"I never claimed that I was the only man capable of doing it or that I was the only man who contributed to it.

"Doctors all over the world experiment and write articles and you learn from them - that's why they write them.

"So let me put this straight. The technique we used was not the one first described by Norman Shumway. It was first described in Guy's Hospital Gazette."

Fascinated by transplants

Dr Barnard was fascinated by the concept of transferring body parts to another being. Before the heart transplant, he had already carried out South Africa's first kidney transplant.

He also won notoriety in his attempt to transplant a dog's head - an experiment he regrets in retrospect.

Preparations for the first human heart transplant took many months. Only when Dr Barnard and his Cape Town-based team were entirely confident of their technique did they decide to operate.

They had to wait a month before a "suitable" donor was found for the recipient, 55-year-old Louis Washkansky - although one was available much earlier.

Dr Barnard is unashamed he rejected a heart from a black person and waited for a white person's.

He explained: "This was not because of the apartheid laws - after all the kidney transplant was a cross-racial transplant

"But we were afraid of claims we were experimenting on black people."

The eventual donor was Denise Darvall, 25, who had been fatally injured in a car accident.

"When we were ready to remove the heart, I turned off the respirator and we waited an agonising 60 seconds until the heart stopped beating. I remember that clearly.

" I also remember when I took the heart out of Louis Washkansky, and inside the chest where there had always been a heart, there was now just an empty cavity."

The operation was a success and Mr Washkansky lived for 18 days before dying from organ rejection.

Dangerous procedure

The transplant had been a difficult and dangerous procedure to perform, but Dr Bernard attributed his own success to ego and ambition.

"I am not a vain man, that is the last thing I am, no one would tell you that I am.

"And I am a very ordinary surgeon because technically, I am not as good as many other surgeons - although I did work very hard at it.

"But ego and ambition - that's not a bad thing. If the goal is to help other people you must not have ego and ambition to help yourself. Ego and ambition are to help other patients and I gave my patients 100% attention."

The operation captured the imagination of the world and it paved the way for a stream of advancements by other surgeons over the following decades.

Turbulent personal life

[ image: Barnard:
Barnard: " I neglected my son"
Yet this pioneering episode has been dwarfed in recent years by Dr Barnard's turbulent personal life, ensuring he has rarely been out of the headlines.

Stories abound about his marriages, his affairs and his divorces. He married his latest wife when she was 23 - more than five decades his junior - although they too have now divorced.

But there is also great sadness in his life, namely the suicide of his son Andre.

He told HARDtalk: "That is one of the dangers of divorce. Children need a solid foundation to grow up in, and the foundation of that is a family home. My success in life is due to a solid family.

"A friend of mine pointed out that 70% of people who commit or attempt to commit suicide come from a broken home.

"I think I should have done more. I was so busy, running around so much, that I neglected my son."

Choking back the tears, he added: "I believe if I paid more attention maybe he would not have committed suicide."

It seems ironic his professional life saved the lives of so many, yet created the circumstances which led to the death of someone so close.

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