The man with a young woman's heart

November 30, 2017

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.

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

A terrible accident

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.

'Save this man'

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."

'A new heart'

"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 ," 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 , 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 United States, an AFP medical correspondent writes.

'World renowned' overnight

With a beaming smile, good looks and a way with words, Barnard, the 45-year-old South African surgeon, quickly becomes a media star.

"On Saturday," he says in an interview 30 years later, "I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday, I was world renowned."

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

He becomes known as "the man with the heart of a young girl", and his vitality and good humour are astonishing.

To a visiting French doctor, he says: "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 dies 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, embarks on a world tour as the latest pioneer of modern medicine.

Explore further: Behind the drama of the world's first heart transplant

Related Stories

Behind the drama of the world's first heart transplant

November 30, 2017
It was an operation that earned him acclaim, but the world's first heart transplant also provoked hate mail and outspoken criticism of South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, 50 years ago.

SE Asia's first heart transplant patient dies at 76

January 16, 2017
Southeast Asia's first heart transplant patient and one of the world's longest surviving cases has died, his family said Monday, more than 31 years after his operation.

World's first successful penis transplant performed in S. Africa (Update)

March 13, 2015
South African doctors announced Friday that they had performed the world's first successful penis transplant, three months after the ground-breaking operation.

France announces second artificial heart transplant

September 8, 2014
France last month carried out the second transplant of a new-generation artificial heart, Health Minister Marisol Touraine said Monday.

Second patient dies in France's artificial heart trial

May 4, 2015
The second person in France to receive a much-hyped new-generation artificial heart has died eight months after receiving the transplant, biomedical firm Carmat said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

Height may be risk factor for varicose veins, study finds

September 24, 2018
The taller you are, the more likely you are to develop varicose veins, according to a study led by Stanford University School of Medicine researchers that examined the genes of more than 400,000 people in search of clues ...

Prosthetic valve mismatches common in transcatheter valve replacement, ups risk of death

September 24, 2018
In the largest multi-institutional study to date, led by researchers from Penn Medicine, the team found that among patients who underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a high number experienced severe and ...

Study reveals a promising alternative to corticosteroids in acute renal failure treatment

September 21, 2018
A protein produced by the human body appears to be a promising new drug candidate to treat conditions that lead to acute renal failure. This is shown by a study conducted at São Paulo State University (UNESP) in São José ...

Can a common heart condition cause sudden death?

September 20, 2018
About one person out of 500 has a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This condition causes thickening of the heart muscle and results in defects in the heart's electrical system. Under conditions ...

New drugs could reduce risk of heart disease when added to statins

September 20, 2018
New drugs that lower levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in blood could further reduce the risk of heart attack when added to statins. These new drugs, which are in various stages of development, could also reduce blood ...

Mediterranean-style diet may lower women's stroke risk

September 20, 2018
Following a Mediterranean-style diet may reduce stroke risk in women over 40 but not in men—according to new research led by the University of East Anglia.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.