The Heart of Cape Town

17 Oct

Author: Steve

WARNING, this is probably going to be a boring blog for most readers but…I love this stuff!!

This is one of the places I’ve wanted to visit since we arrived here.  I had planned on going myself but then I thought, ‘what a great educational experience for the kids’.  So when I talked to the family about it they were sooooo excited (heavy sarcasm).  I told them they could leave at any time if they saw blood or felt queasy.

After we got to the Groote Schuur Hospital and found the Heart of Cape Town Museum we were introduced to our energetic guide Trace.  She was extremely knowledgeable and made the 2-hour event a great experience for all of us.  Her energy and method of teaching kept us all engaged.

Back in 1967 Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first ever human heart transplant surgery right here in Cape Town.  He was an amazing surgeon known to have incredible hands.  In 1956 he received a two-year scholarship for postgraduate training in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota to gain his PhD.  However, the University told him it would take him 6 years to get his PhD, Dr. Barnard said, “No, I would like to do it in 2 years”.  They told him that that would be impossible.  He asked them what the requirements were for this degree and said, “let’s see how it goes”.  Well, he not only received his PhD in 2 years but he also gained an additional MS degree (Master of Science in Surgery) at the same time.

The Americans were hot in pursuit of leading this charge, putting in years of research and trying to be the first to successfully accomplish a human heart transplant.  Dr. Barnard left the United States basically telling them that he would be performing this surgery first.  I think they probably pacified him and not knowing much about South Africa thought ‘sure you will, you in your third world country on the tip of Africa’.  In fact they gave him heart and lung machines as gifts to help in his research.  If you remember back during that time Apartheid was still in place and there were trade embargos against South Africa from many countries including the United States.  So it wasn’t easy for South Africa to get such equipment.  I think the American surgeons who gave those gifts may have regretted that donation because on December 3, 1967 Dr. Barnard was the first to successfully accomplish a human heart transplant.

Dr. Barnard had returned to the Americans’ laboratory in 1966 to further discuss their progress, and again informed them that he would be performing this procedure very soon (yeah, right).  After Dr. Barnard’s first case in 1967 the Americans (who now believed the first case was stolen from them and questioned Dr. Barnard’s research of 48 dogs, since they each had approximately 250 dog heart transplants under their belts) started to immediately perform procedures with unfortunately rapid failure.  In fact human heart transplants went crazy around the world, 102 procedures were performed in 20 different countries during the year of 1968 – with the majority being failures.  There was a surgeon in Texas who performed this procedure in 35 minutes flat, that year he performed 17 cases none of which survived.  He subsequently closed his program the following year.  The American government came in and put a hold on these procedures until “things were figured out”.  It wasn’t until 1983 that the Americans got back into this arena (highly due to the drug Ciclosporin which helps to reduce the activity of the immune system and therefore reduces the risk of organ rejection).  Ironically, 1983 was the same year Dr. Barnard retired after a very successful career.

Dr. Barnard was the rock-star of surgery: young, charismatic, very photogenic and always mingling with the most famous people in the world.  He always spoke his mind and was said to be difficult to work with and fairly arrogant.  He was married and divorced 3 times; his last wife was more than 40 years younger than him.  Dr. Barnard died alone in 2001 of a severe asthma attack – he never wore a bracelet identifying that he had asthma and when the hotel attendees saw him (not knowing he was undergoing an asthma attack) they began to give him CPR.

The 2-hour tour goes in to detail from the beginning of the planning stages, the team involved, the donors’ life, the patients, etc.  It was very interesting. We were lucky because there were only 7 in our group. Surprisingly one of the other people on our tour was a radiologist at the hospital during this time and she knew all the key players.

“Life is the joy of living; it is the celebration of being alive.  I realized what medicine was all about: Medicine must bring back the joy into the life of the patient.  Medicine must give the patient something to celebrate.  When medicine cannot do this anymore, then the goal of medicine must be to allow the patient to die a death as quickly and painlessly as possible”

-Professor Christiaan Barnard

Waiting for the tour to start - the recipient of the heart was 53 year old Louis Washkansky

The donor: 25 year old Denise Darvall had just left a bakery where she picked up a cake for a visit to some friends. Denise and her mother (her mother died instantly) were struck by a vehicle before they got back into their car.

Amy, Kendal and Keegan looking from the gallery as each step of the procedure was discussed.

The theaters (that’s what they call operating rooms) we toured were the same rooms used for that procedure and the equipment was all the same as well.

Here's Keegan with Dr. Barnard - you'll also notice his American degrees on the wall behind Keegan's shoulder

"Just stand there and smile"! Denise's brother donated many of her belongings for the museum. That doll was hers from childhood. It had ink draining from her eyes that looked like tears. The museum sent it to get cleaned-up. The doll maker took off the head and removed the old eyes, cleaned the head out and put it back together. She laid the doll on a back table and looked for new marbles for eyes and within seconds she turned around and the doll was sitting up with ink running down like tears from empty eye sockets. Said to be a true story - this room was creeping Kendal out.

Notice the clock behind me, that is the exact time when they realized, "It's going to work"! This place was awesome!


Posted by on October 17, 2011 in South Africa


4 responses to “The Heart of Cape Town

  1. Jim & Karen F

    October 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Very interesting, Steve. You know this history well. We recall the news and reporting was almost impossible to believe, at that time. The history means even more to be at the actual site in a very small group. Well done!

  2. Pat N.

    October 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I think you have a future on the History Channel, Steve! While I was quite young when Dr. Barnard accomplished this, I do remember the sense of wonder….I thought we would all be able to live forever…

  3. Julie E

    October 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Not boring to me. Look what can become of medicine in such a short time. Who knows what we will see in 10 years. Kendal listen to your Dad…….
    love ya all.

  4. Tina (sis)

    October 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    That tour sounds AWESOME to me !


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