DURBAN, South Africa – Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard, a South African doctor working out of a little-known hospital who became an international hero by performing the first successful human heart transplant, died Sunday. He was 78.
Barnard suffered a fatal asthma attack Sunday morning after going for a swim at a resort in Paphos on the southwest coast of Cyprus, where he had been vacationing, according to a statement from the Christiaan Barnard Foundation.
Barnard had spent many years experimenting with heart transplants, mainly with dogs, before he walked into the operating room at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town about 1 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1967, and replaced Louis Washkansky’s 53-year-old heart – crippled by diabetes and heart disease – with the heart of 25-year-old Denise Darvall, who had died in a car accident.
It was “a very easy organ to transplant. There will be much greater scientific breakthroughs in medicine, because the heart transplant was not a scientific breakthrough. It was a technical breakthrough,” he later said.
Washkansky lived 18 days after the operation before dying of double pneumonia attributed to his suppressed immune system.
But Barnard’s success in putting a new heart in Washkansky’s body and coaxing it to beat and circulate blood was a massive step that turned him into a medical superstar.
Soon after Washkansky died, Barnard transplanted a heart into Philip Blaiberg, who lived for more than 18 months before dying from chronic rejection.
More than three decades later, the surgery, while not quite routine, has been refined so greatly that 90 percent of patients survive, and 85 percent live for a year or more.
“Thirty years later, many thousands of patients a year are still benefiting from the therapy he pioneered,” said Dr. Maaten Simoons, president of the European Society of Cardiology, which is meeting in Stockholm this week.
A man who never shied from controversy in apartheid-era South Africa, Barnard ignored many racial barriers in the country. He was the first doctor to use mixed-race nurses in the operating room to treat white patients, and he transplanted the heart of a white woman into a black man.
Yet, he also criticized apartheid opponents for not recognizing the good in his country.
In recent years, Barnard spent most of his time in Austria because he had several business commitments in Europe, said Billy Stewart, a local spokesman for the Christiaan Barnard Foundation, which supplies financial support to pediatric medicine in the developing world.
Despite his success, Barnard said the highlight of his career was quietly performing operations on children with abnormal hearts, where each operation required different techniques and skills.
“That was real surgery,” he said.
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