It is just 10 years since the first surgical operation to transplant the heart of one human being, recently dead, into another.
It is just 10 years since the first surgical operation to transplant the heart of one human being, recently dead, into another. It was performed in South Africa, on December 3rd, 1967. More than 200 similar operations have been performed since; about half of them in the first year. More recently, heart transplants have become fairly rare.
SYNOPSIS: The operation itself was often quite successful; the new heart appeared to be working well. But the number of patients who have survived more than a year is relatively low. The reason has usually been rejection. Until more is known about this, surgeons have become cautions about doing transplants. Also, improvements in other kinds of heart surgery have made this last resort less necessary.
The first heart transplant was carried out at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, and the pioneer surgeon was Dr. Christiaan Barnard. His first transplant patient, Louis Washkansky, lived less than three weeks. But his second, Dr. Philip Blaiberg survived for 20 months. This 59-year-old dentist knew he was an experimental "guinea-pig", and his courage won world-wide, admiration.
When Dr. Blaiberg died, Father Damien Boulogne, a French Dominican priest, became the world's longest heart transplant survivor. But he lived only 17 months. Now another Frenchman, Monsieur Emmanuel Vitria, has shown that occasionally the result can be very different. He appeared on French television last week, nine years after his transplant operation.
Monsieur Vitria, who is 57, did not want to talk about his operation or his health. He was much more interested in discussing the new Metro -- the underground railway -- that has just been opened in his home city, Marseilles. He appeared to be extremely well. Three times a week, he cycles 30 kilometres. He spends much of his time in the streets of Marseilles persuading people to become blood donors. And he often visits people in hospital to encourage them and raise their morale. Doctors agree that the outstanding success of his heart transplant must have been due to a fortunate high degree of compatibility between his own tissues and those of the donor.
Far more transplants have been performed in the United States than in any other country. But the South African Dr. Barnard is still pioneering - with the hearts of baboons and chimpanzees.