Posts Tagged ‘Louis Washkansky’

Medical History: The First Human Heart Transplant

Dr. Christiaan Barnard by Benito Prieto Coussent via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Fifty years ago this week marks a milestone in medical history.  It was on December 3, 1967, the first successful human-to-human heart transplant took place.  On that day in Cape Town, South Africa Dr. Christiaan Barnard placed the heart of 25-year-old Denise Darvall into 53-year-old Louis Washkansky.  The unknown surgeon became an overnight sensation though he claimed the procedure “not that great an event—certainly not in the history of medicine.”

Louis Washkansky lived only 18 days.  He died of double pneumonia possibly contracted as a result of a suppressed immune system from anti-rejection medication.  His transplanted heart, however, had functioned normally.  Despite the short duration of Washkansky’s life post-transplant, Barnard’s achievement would change contemporary cardiac surgery.  Though he had not developed the transplant technique, Barnard pioneered its use around the world.  His boldness to perform the risky surgery in response to rigorous questioning by medical researchers was perhaps his main contribution. Prior to the heart transplant, Barnard introduced open-heart surgery in South Africa, and he would later develop new designs for artificial heart valves.

Today heart transplants are routine.  Statistics show there are approximately 5,000 heart transplants performed in the world each year.  Survival rates are increasing with 75% at five years and beyond.  Many more could be done if there were donor hearts available.  In the United States alone, there are almost 4,000 people awaiting a new heart.

Teachers can expand on the topic of organ transplantation with their STEM/STEAM students by exploring eLibrary’s scholarly medical journals such as The Lancet for more technical information, medical reference books such as The Mosby Medical Encyclopedia for general overviews and newspapers for up-to-date reporting and statistics.  Search for subjects like medical technology in Research Topics which can help students begin their research.