Who Was Christiaan Barnard? The Life of the World’s First Heart Transplant Surgeon

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Who was Christiaan Barnard? Information about the life, biography, studies and works of Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant.

Christiaan Barnard

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Christiaan Barnard; (Beaufort West, 1922 – Cyprus, 2001) South African cardiologist and surgeon, especially remembered for successfully performing the first heart transplant.

Christiaan Neethling Barnard was born on November 8, 1922 in Beaufort West, South Africa, the son of a Dutch Reformed missionary. The father had little income, but given his social position as a member of the church and the privileges that his position granted him, he was able to give a good education to his offspring: four children, one of whom died at the age of five from heart disease , which perhaps prompted Christian to devote his attention to this field.

The future Dr. Barnard attended renowned private schools in his hometown and then studied medicine at the University of the Cape, graduating in 1953. He began his career as a general surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, where his older brother Marius was head of the transplant team.

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In 1955 he obtained a scholarship to enter the American University of Minnesota, where in 1958 he obtained the title of doctor specializing in cardiology. There he was an outstanding student of the prestigious Dr. Owen H. Wangesteen, who introduced him to cardiovascular science, while Dr. Shumway familiarized him with the technique of heart transplants in animals, so that, upon his return from the United States, he began to practice for several years with dogs. In 1962 he was appointed chief of thoracic surgery at the Groote Schuur hospital, where he had already practiced before receiving his doctorate.

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Organ transplants were not a novelty at the time. The first kidney transplant was performed by Dr. Varony in 1936. In 1953, Hardy performed the first lung transplant on a cancer patient, and in 1954 Joseph Murray managed to successfully transplant the kidneys of two twins, performing a triple transplant in 1967 kidney, pancreas and duodenum. In 1964, the aforementioned Hardy transplanted the heart of a chimpanzee into a man, who died after an hour due to the smaller volume of the ape’s organ.

But on December 3, 1967, a news story picked up by all the wires stunned the world: a South African doctor had performed the first heart transplant on a human being. The recipient was Louis Washkansky, merchant, corpulent and optimistic fifty-six-year-old man, terminally ill due to an irreversible heart problem, coupled with acute diabetes. The donor, Dénise Darvall, a twenty-five-year-old office worker hit by a car with her mother.

The operation, carried out by a team of twenty surgeons under Barnard’s direction, lasted six hours. Upon waking up, Washkansky stated that he felt much better with the new heart. Doctor and patient were catapulted to fame, although eighteen days later, on the morning of December 21, the patient died of pneumonia.

Despite this, after this milestone in the history of medicine, honors and distinctions of all kinds began to rain down on Barnard, becoming the most popular character of the moment. He threw himself into worldly life and photographed himself with the most famous actresses of the time. Speculation about innumerable flirts gave rise to tabloids, without him seeming to care too much about his world playboy image.

The second transplant

On January 2, 1968, he performed the second transplant. This time the recipient was Dr. Philip Blaiberg, and the donor, the mulatto Clive Haupt. The heart of a black man beat for 563 days in the body of a white man. From that moment on, in the midst of an ongoing controversy regarding the bioethics of such interventions (Is he who does not breathe but his heart beats dead?), patients gained life expectancy, thanks to immunosuppressive drugs such as the cyclosperine.

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In 1970 he divorced his first wife, Louwtjie, who had given him two children: André, who would commit suicide in 1984 due to the separation of his parents (according to the diagnosis of his psychiatrist and his father’s assessment), and Deirdre. That same year he married the wealthy nineteen-year-old heiress Barbara Zoellner, daughter of Johannesburg-based German billionaire Frederick Zoellner, known as the “king of steel.”

In 1974, he performed a double heart transplant for the first time in the world, which consisted of adding a healthier heart to another sick one to help it fulfill the functions of the one it already had. But his experiments in the operating room would end, sooner or later, in failure. In 1975, when his fame began to decline, he visited Spain to present his book Tension , and his new wife (who had given him two sons, Frederick and Christian), in order not to lose an iota of popularity in the Mediterranean basin, where he was most flattered. He continued to perform heart transplants. In 1979, however, he refused to participate in a human head transplant operation, finding the idea impractical and “probably immoral.” This affirmation safeguarded his honor.

End of the exercise of the profession

In 1981, the year in which he promoted his book The Body Machine , the arthritis he had suffered from since 1956 worsened to the point of preventing him from exercising his profession without serious risk to the patient. Also in the 1980s, his wife, Barbara, ended her marriage and subsequently married a Portuguese businessman. Barnard tried to rebuild his life with twenty-four-year-old model Evelyn Entleder, who also left him. Finally, he found sentimental balance with another model forty-one years younger than him, Karen Setzkorn, whom he married in 1983 and with whom he would have two more children, Armin and Lara, who was born when Barnard was seventy-four years old. old.

In 1983, after working in a hospital in the United States, he definitively abandoned the practice of surgery, but despite the ailments, the loss of prestige among his colleagues and the loss of popularity, he tried to break new ground. Until then he had performed about 140 transplants, including a baboon heart to a twenty-five-year-old patient who died within a few hours.

From 1987 he devoted himself to medical research and led four teams at the Max Planck Institute and the University of Heidelberg, both in Germany, a third at the University of Oklahoma, in the United States, and finally another in Switzerland. . These teams carried out studies aimed at discovering the causes of the aging of organisms and the biological factors present in the fetus and that disappear at birth.

In addition to coordinating these teams, he tended his huge sheep farm near Cape Town, where he attempted to reintroduce wild animals that originally roamed the land. In 1993 he published his autobiography, The Second Life , where in addition to talking about his professional career, he explained in detail his idylls with famous women. In his trips and conferences he insisted on what was his obsession in his last days: instilling in society the need for organ donation.

In March 2001 he still showed prominence by publishing Fifty Formulas for a Healthy Heart . On September 2 he died in Cyprus at the age of seventy-eight, the victim of an asthma attack, not a heart attack as the press reported a few hours after his death. That same year, the implantation of the Abiocor artificial heart as a permanent organ in an American patient was a milestone that somewhat dwarfed the feat accomplished by Barnard in 1967.

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