The first Human Heart Transplant Surgery

The First Human Heart Transplant Surgery

Many people said that it could never be done. The ones who believed were too afraid to try. But all that changed on December 3, 1967. Christiaan Barnard led a team of surgeons to perform the first human heart transplant. The surgery took place at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.

A heart transplant is when a heart is taken out of one person and put into someone else. The donor heart is usually taken from someone who suffered from a fatal brain injury, the rest of the body’s organs are kept on life support to save other organs, including the heart and kidneys. The donor’s heart is transported on ice until able to be transplanted. The recipient’s damaged heart is then removed and the donor’s heart is stitched to the needy blood vessels that carry blood to and from the heart.

The recipient was a fifty-three year old grocer, Lewis Washansky. He was suffering from chronic heart disease. On December 2, 1967, twenty-five year old Denise Darvall was fatally injured in a road accident. She suffered from a skull fracture and severe head injuries after being hit by a drunk driver. Her heart was kept alive in a heart-lung machine, circulating Washansky’s blood. The next day Dr. Christiaan Barnard successfully transplanted her heart into Washansky’s body. The procedure took 9 excruciating hours. After the surgery was conducted, Washansky was put on drugs to suppress his immune system and keep his body from rejecting the heart. The drugs that were given to him made him more susceptible to sicknesses. On December 21, Washansky passed away. The death was due to both of his lungs filling up with fluid, restricting the amount of oxygen through his body, also known as double pneumonia. The heart functioned normally until he died.

The procedure Dr. Barnard used was one developed by a team of researchers in the 1950’s. It was also the same procedure used in 1958 by Dr. Norman Shumway. He performed the first successful heart transplant on a dog at Stanford University in California. The dog lived for 10 days after the procedure. In 1968, Dr. Shumway and his team were the first to carry out a successful heart transplant in the United States.

Even though Washansky later died, Dr. Barnard’s procedure was considered a major success, in both medicine and science. He was recognizable world-wide overnight. He received many awards and much glory for his hard work and dedication. Dr. Barnard was born on November 8, 1922 in Beaufort West, South Africa. He was trained to become a surgeon in both Cape Town and the United States. Before he began surgery on humans he performed heart transplants on dogs. He even performed the first kidney transplant in South Africa in October 1967. Even after Washansky’s death, Barnard continued performing heart transplants. By the late 70’s, people lived up to 5 years with new hearts. In 1983, he retired due to being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He then began writing books of his findings and teaching. He later died in 2001 due to a severe asthma attack.

Heart transplants are still more commonly successful today, but it is extremely difficult to find donors.