This week we have two more patients for our Hall of Fame: Louis Washkansky and Denise Darvall. You have probably heard of Louis Washkansky because he was famously the first person to receive a heart transplant. Of course, the more famous person in the event was Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed it. And as you might have guessed, Denise Darvall was the donor.
Louis Washkansky was a Jewish man who was born in Lithuania and immigrated to South Africa when he was nine years old. As a young man, he was athletic – he played football, swam and lifted weights. He worked as a grocer. In his middle age, he became diabetic and developed serious heart disease. As his disease progressed, he was referred from one doctor to another and finally came under the care of Christiaan Barnard, a cardiac surgeon who was looking for a candidate for heart transplant. Louis Washkansky fit the bill – he was 53 years old, and was suffering from an incurable degenerative heart disease. One source quotes a conversation between them:
Dr. Christiaan Barnard asked Louis if he would be interested in having a heart transplant, although it had never been done before.
Louis said, “If that’s the only chance, I will take it.”
Dr. Barnard said, “Don’t you want to think about it?”
Louis replied, “No, no….there’s nothing to think about. I can’t go on living like this. The way I am now is not living.”
The details of how Denise Darvall’s heart became available are also well documented. She and her mother were hit by a car as they were crossing a road in Cape Town. Her mother died instantly and Denise suffered irreversible brain damage. She was brought to hospital and put on life support. Her father was asked if the hospital could use her heart and kidney for other patients and he quickly gave his consent, based on his appreciation of her generosity and concern for others.
While Denise was on life support her heart remained strong. At the time, the standard for recovering organs required that the heart stopped. And so when her heart stopped, it was removed for transplant. There had been some mystery associated with the fact that her heart suddenly stopped, but after Christiaan Barnard died in 2001, his brother Marius revealed that Christiaan had injected potassium into her heart to paralyze it. This allowed her to be declared dead, so that her organs could be harvested.
The transplant operation went well and the new heart began to beat on its own once it was restarted. All the major newspapers around the world announced the transplant and covered the day-by-day condition of Louis Washkansky.
Barnard was very concerned about rejection of the foreign heart – had the heart been rejected, his operation would have been a failure. To ensure this didn’t happen, he gave Washkansky especially strong drugs to suppress his immune system. His immune response became so weak that he contracted pneumonia and died 18 days after the operation. It’s an excellent example of “The operation was a success, but (unfortunately) the patient died.” Over time, post-operative care improved considerably and as we know, now heart transplants are done routinely.