Few moments in history will ever measure up to the historical day when Christiaan Barnard successfully completed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant right here in the Mother City.
While a lot is known about the triumphs of Barnard’s career, some are unaware of the amazing life he led and all the lives he touched along the way.
Humble beginnings brought this amazing doctor to the forefront of the medical world, starting his life on November 8, 1922 in the Klein Karoo, just some 500 kilometers from Cape Town.
His childhood was not an easy one as his family were ostracised from fellow Afrikaaners in the area. Barnard’s father, Adam, was a missionary and a minister loved by the local coloured community during the years of apartheid.
Despite the challenges, Barnard went on to create his own family. He and his first wife moved from Ceres to Cape Town shortly after the birth of their second child and Barnard dedicated his time towards his studies. He achieved an MD degree for his dissertation on the treatment of patients with tuberculosis meningitis at the City Hospital for Infectious Diseases at the University of Cape Town. It was during this time that he took up residency in the intense surgical unit at Groote Schuur Hospital under the guidance of Professor of Surgery, Jannie Louw.
Barnard’s ultimate goal, however, was to be the surgeon that achieved the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant.
The historical moment Barnard had prepared for over the years had finally come, after completing his PhD in Surgery at the University of Minnesota in just two years. This qualification usually takes six.
The budding doctor had received the respect of his American peers and returned to South Africa in 1958 to officially develop the procedure for open heart surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital.
He single-handedly developed one of the best cardiac surgical teams on the globe, as well as prosthetic replacement for damaged aortic and mitral valves.
December, 3 1967 was the day that would make history. Barnard successfully removed the heart of Denise Darvall, who was killed in an accident, and placed it into the chest cavity of Louis Washkansky. After the surgery when Washkansky woke up, he became the first-ever successful heart transplant patient in history. Sadly, 18 days later he died of pneumonia.
What followed after Barnard’s first successful surgery can only be described as the “Barnard Effect.” A large number of surgeries mimicking his course of action began to occur, most ending in poor results.
In a flash Barnard was skyrocketed into stardom, an effect that put huge strain on his family life. His first marriage ended in divorce and both children moved in with their mother. He later remarried to Barbara Zoellner and had two sons but this marriage was short-lived in comparison to his third marriage to South African model Karin Setzkorn. The couple had two children together.
Unfortunately time stops for no one, not even those who make history.
In the years before his life ended, Barnard had been quoted as saying, “getting old is one of life’s greatest tragedies” but his passing brought tragedy to his family and the millions who admired his work.
On September 2001, Barnard suffered a bronchial blockage after an evening swim in Paphos, Cyprus agitated his asthma.
Barnard’s ashes were buried in the garden of his childhood home in Beaufort West with the words, “I came back home” on his tombstone.
No surgeon will take his place in our hearts, and his legend will forever be unbeatable.
If you’re looking to learn more about Barnard, you can visit Cape Town’s Heart of Cape Town Museum, where you can see the heart of the first successful transplant patient in the flesh.
Pictures: Heart of Cape Town Museum/Instagram