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Famous doctors: Christiaan Barnard

Famous doctors: Christiaan BarnardWhilst working as a cardiac surgeon in South Africa, Christiaan Barnard made a medical breakthrough with the first heart transplant and was catapulted into world-wide fame.

Why was he famous?

The son of a poor Afrikaner preacher, he became a family physician on the Western Cape of South Africa. In the late 1950s he grew interested in cardiac treatment and in due course became a well respected cardiothoracic surgeon in Cape Town.

Barnard experimented for several years with animal heart transplants and more than 50 dogs received transplanted hearts through his operations, but typically died shortly afterward. With the availability of new breakthroughs introduced by pioneers such as Norman Shumway, several surgical teams were soon in a position to prepare for a human heart transplant.

The first transplant

Barnard performed the world's first human heart transplant operation on December 3, 1967. The operation lasted nine hours and used a team of 30 people. The patient, Louis Washkansky, was a 55 year old grocer, suffering from diabetes and incurable heart disease. Barnard later wrote, "For a dying man it is not a difficult decision because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water, convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side."

The donor heart came from a young woman, Denise Darvall, who had been killed in a road accident on December 2, 1967 while crossing a street in Cape Town. After securing permission from Darvall's father to use her heart, Barnard performed the transplant.

A short-lived success

Washkansky survived the operation and lived for 18 days. The medication he was taking to stop his immune system rejecting the heart also left him vulnerable to infection and he died from pneumonia.

Though Barnard’s first patient with the heart of another human only survived for a little more than two weeks, Barnard had passed a milestone in a new field of life-extending surgery.

Barnard became an international superstar overnight and was celebrated around the world for his daring accomplishment. He was quite photogenic and seemed to enjoy the media attention following the operation.

A persistence that paid off

When many surgeons, disillusioned by poor results, gave up cardiac transplantation, he persisted in his efforts until the advent of the drug Cyclosporin, which helped revive the operation throughout the world.

Today, more than 30,000 people have heart surgery in the United Kingdom each year. The rate of survival for heart bypass surgery in the UK is between 91.8% and 96.5%.

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