Dhaka, Bangladesh
Man with a young woman´s heart

Off the track

Man with a young woman´s heart

Fifty years ago South Africa stunned the world: A surgeon in Cape Town, Christiaan Barnard, successfully transplanted the heart of a woman into the chest of a dying man. Ann Washkansky could not have imagined that the traffic accident she comes across on December 2, 1967, would bring both life and fame to her terminally ill husband. As Washkansky is driving back from visiting her husband at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town when she sees a vehicle slam into Denise Darvall, a young bank worker, as she is crossing a busy road. Her body flies through the air and her head smashes into a parked car, fracturing her skull. It is soon clear that Darvall is brain dead. But her heart is still beating. Louis Washkansky, 53, has been told he has only weeks left to live because of severe heart failure. He accepts without hesitation a barely imaginable proposition from Barnard: a heart transplant. Successful transplants of kidneys and livers have been carried out for years but none so far with a human heart, the core of life itself. The father of 25-year-old Denise quickly gives 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 “Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant the First Human Heart”. ´It´s going to work!´ The operation starts in the early hours of December 3. Denise´s heart is removed and placed in a 10-degree Celsius (50-degree Fahrenheit) solution for transfer to an operating room where around 20 doctors, nurses and technicians are gathered around Louis. The tension is knife-edge, a young intern who was present recounts 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, Professor Barnard murmured: ´Christ, it´s going to work!´,” says the intern, whose name is not given. “The anaesthetist then called out the pulse rate: 50, 70, 75 and then, half an hour later, 100,” the intern recounts. “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 is quoted as saying in his first conversation, about 33 hours after the operation, with the surgeon he calls “the man with the golden hands”. “I gave you a new heart,” Barnard says. The news spreads. At 1:17 pm on December 3, AFP´s telex machines rattle 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.”

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