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Wednesday, December 3, 1997 Published at 16:49 GMT



Sci/Tech

Thirtieth anniversary of heart transplants
image: [ Survival chances have increased over the past 30 years ]
Survival chances have increased over the past 30 years

The first successful human heart transplant took place 30 years ago in South Africa, leading to the transformation of the lives of thousands of patients.


[ image: Dr Christiaan Barnard did not expect to become famous]
Dr Christiaan Barnard did not expect to become famous
It was carried out by Dr Christiaan Barnard on 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, on December 1967, at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

Mr Washkansky was given the heart of road accident victim Denise Darvall, and although he lived for only 18 days before his body rejected the new organ, the operation created headlines round the world.

Doctors had already transplanted livers and kidneys by that time. But the heart, with its poetic imagery of life and love, caught the public and scientific imagination.

Dr Barnard, 75, says he saw it as just another part of the body: "We didn't see the heart as the seat of the soul. The cessation of the heart did not mean the end of life. We knew that."

Nor did he expect to be famous: "We really did not see it as a big event. We did not even take photographs of the operation that night."

After Mr Washkansky died, Dr Barnard and his team persevered with their innovative surgical procedure. Their second transplant patient, Philip Blaiberg, lived for 18 months after the operation, and survival times have increased ever since.


[ image: More than 40,000 heart transplants have taken place in the last 30 years]
More than 40,000 heart transplants have taken place in the last 30 years
Dr Barnard's longest surviving patient, Dirk van Zyl, lived with an implanted heart for 23 years before dying last year of diabetes - unrelated to his heart condition.

More than 40,000 heart transplants have been performed in the last 30 years and survival rates have increased significantly - 90% of patients survive the operation, with an 85% chance of living for a year and a 70-75% chance of lasting five years.

However, transplant surgery is still far from perfect, and the search for more reliable methods continues.


[ image: Sir Magdi Yacoub has performed the most heart transplants]
Sir Magdi Yacoub has performed the most heart transplants
Sir Magdi Yacoub, from Harefield and Royal Brompton hospitals in London, who has performed the most heart transplants, says: "My greatest hope is transplants without drugs which give side effects."

He is at the forefront of continuing research. His studies involve controversial research into using animal hearts. But his greatest concern is about public attitudes and the shortage of organ donors.

Dr Barnard predicts that human hearts will one day be grown artificially to suit patients, using genetic engineering techniques that can already produce human skin.

Dr Barnard says: "There is now tremendous progress in genetic engineering and it may be possible eventually to grow a human heart."

Children's operations

Despite his international recognition, Dr Barnard says the highlight of his career was performing operations on children with abnormal hearts, with each operation requiring different techniques and skills.

"That was real surgery," he says.

Carl's case

Carl Whittaker is one heart transplant patient who shows how active life can be with a new heart.

It is 13 years since he was given a heart transplant at the age of 24 by Sir Magdi.


[ image: Carl Whittaker ran 100 metres in under 12 seconds]
Carl Whittaker ran 100 metres in under 12 seconds
He said: "It was strange listening to someone else's heart beating and wondering when it would stop."

But far from stopping, Carl's new heart has enabled him to run 100 metres in less than 12 seconds and this year he captained the British team at this year's International Transplant Games.

Dr Christiaan Barnard interviewed by Justin Webb (Dur: 1'33")





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A layman's guide to heart transplants by CHF


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