Fifty years ago SA stunned the world: a surgeon in Cape Town, Christiaan Barnard, successfully transplanted the heart of a woman into the chest of a dying man.

Here is a narrative, largely based on AFP reporting at the time, of the extraordinary details surrounding the first human-to-human heart transplant.

Ann Washkansky could not have imagined that the traffic accident she came across on December 2 1967, would bring both life and fame to her terminally ill husband.

Washkansky was driving back from visiting her husband at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town when she saw a vehicle slam into Denise Darvall, a young bank worker, as she crossed a busy road. Her body flew through the air and her head smashed into a parked car, fracturing her skull. It was soon clear Darvall was brain dead, but her heart was still beating.

Louis Washkansky, 53, had been told he had only weeks left to live because of severe heart failure. He accepted without hesitation a barely imaginable proposition from Barnard: a heart transplant.

Successful transplants of kidneys and livers had been carried out for years but none so far with a human heart, the core of life itself.

The father of 25-year-old Darvall quickly gave his consent.

"If you can’t save my daughter, you must try and save this man," Edward Darvall is quoted as saying in Donald McRae’s 2006 book entitled Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant the First Human Heart.

The operation started in the early hours of December 3. Denise’s heart is removed and placed in a 10°C solution for transfer to an operating room where about 20 doctors, nurses and technicians were gathered around Washkansky.

The tension was high, a young intern who was present recounted in an AFP story filed the following day.

"When the last anastomosis [connection] was done, it was the moment of truth. Everyone craned their necks for a better view. In the complete silence, Prof Barnard murmured: ‘Christ, it’s going to work!’," the intern, whose name was not given, said.

"The anaesthetist then called out the pulse rate: 50, 70, 75 and then, half an hour later, 100," the intern recounted.

"The mood was extraordinary. We knew everything had gone well. Suddenly, the professor removed his gloves and asked for a cup of tea."

"I am much better," Washkansky was quoted as saying in his first conversation, about 33 hours after the operation, with the surgeon he called "the man with the golden hands".

"I gave you a new heart," Barnard says.

The news spread. At 1.17pm on December 3, AFP’s telex machines rattled out a short piece, originally in French: "A heart transplant, believed to be the first in the world, was successfully carried out today at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town."

It was a complete surprise as "everyone" expected that such a first would come from the US, an AFP medical correspondent wrote.

With a beaming smile, good looks and a way with words, Barnard, the 45-year-old South African surgeon, quickly became a media star. "On Saturday," he said in an interview 30 years later, "I was a surgeon in SA, very little known. On Monday, I was world renowned."

Four days after the groundbreaking procedure, Louis Washkansky gave a short radio interview from his hospital bed. The microphone had been sterilised and the reporter had to stay at the door of the room to avoid infecting the patient.

He became known as "the man with the heart of a young girl", and his vitality and good humour were astonishing. To a visiting French doctor, he said: "Tell the Parisians to make a collection and buy me a plane ticket and I will come over and see them."

But he would not have the opportunity to travel. Washkansky died from pneumonia 18 days after the transplant, his heart still functioning but his immune system weakened by the drugs used to prevent his body’s rejection of the new heart. Barnard, meanwhile, embarked on a world tour as the latest pioneer of modern medicine.


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