South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant, at a press conference in Paris on March 1, 1970
Fifty years ago, South Africa stunned the world: the heart of a young woman transplanted successfully into the chest of a sick man, under the fingers of a surgeon with an actor’s physique, Chris Barnard.
Here is the story of this first that marked the history of modern medicine, taken from the AFP archives.
– A frightful accident –
On December 2, 1967, Ann Washkansky had no doubt that the appalling traffic accident she witnessed on a Cape Street would bring a global celebrity to her own hospitalized husband.
A young bank employee, Denise Darvall, is violently hit by a car on a major artery in the second largest city in South Africa. His body waltzes in the air, his head hits a car at a standstill.
Photo montage made on December 1, 1992 of Louis Washkansky (d) recipient of the heart and Denise Ann Darvall (d), the donor
When first aid arrives, the damage of the head trauma is already irreparable. But his heart is still beating.
Ann Washkansky will later explain having „witnessed the accident“ by chance. „I could not have known of the connection this accident was going to have with my husband.“
– „Try to save this man“ –
At the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, Louis Washkansky has only „a few weeks to live“. In terminal heart failure, this 53-year-old man accepted without hesitation Christiaan Barnard’s hardly credible proposal: to graft a new heart into him.
Kidney and liver transplants have been performed for a few years, but no one has dared to attack this noble organ, a symbol of life.
„If there is no hope for my daughter, then try to save this man“: the father of Denise finally agree to the collection of the heart of the 25-year-old woman who lies in a gloomy room of Groote Schuur, brain dead.
– „God, that will work!“ –
The transplant begins in the early hours of Sunday, December 3, the body of Denise Darvall is placed in hypothermia, the heart excised in two minutes, placed in a solution to 10 degrees and then transferred to the operating room where about twenty doctors, nurses and technicians are busy around Louis Washkansky.
„The tension was extreme in this room,“ says a young intern who participated in the operation. „Doctors were coming in. The nurses were bending over the railing.“
„When the last anastomosis (suture work) was finished, it was the second of truth, each one bending his head to see better.“ In the midst of the general silence, Professor Barnard muttered, „Oh my God, it will work!“
The intern continues his story: „The anesthetist then announced the rhythm of the pulse: 50, 70, 75 and then half an hour later: 100. The atmosphere was extraordinary.We knew that everything had gone well. The professor suddenly took off his gloves and asked for a cup of tea.
– „A brand new heart“ –
„I feel much better“: 33 hours after the operation, Louis Washkansky exchanged his first words with the surgeon whom he calls „the man with golden hands“.
„You promised me a brand new heart?“: He asks. „You have a brand new heart,“ says Pr Barnard.
The news of the incredible operation is spreading. The AFP teletypewriter crackle on December 3 at 13:17: „A transplant heart, the first carried out in the world, is believed in Johannesburg, was successfully completed today at the hospital Groote Schuur Cape.“
The „surprise“ is total, says the AFP medical journalist because „everyone“ was waiting for the Americans for such a first.
– „A world leader“ –
With his wide smile, his mouth and his sense of the formula, the 45-year-old South African surgeon immediately became the darling of the media. He goes on with ease press conferences and interviews.
„On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known.On Monday, I was a world leader,“ he commented 30 years later.
Louis Washkansky also focuses attention: four days after the operation, he is interviewed by the radio from his bed. The microphone is sterilized and the reporter stays at the door of the room to avoid infections.
He whom the media calls „the man with a girl’s heart“ proves to be an exceptional patient by his vitality, his good mood. A Parisian doctor came to visit, he said: „Tell Parisians to make a quest to offer me a plane ticket and I will come to see them“
He will not have the opportunity to travel. He died 18 days after surgery, his heart intact. It is pneumonia that prevails, consequence of the anti-rejection treatments administered after the transplant.
Barnard will begin a world tour as a new star of modern medicine. He will die in 2001.