50 years of heart transplants

Medical professionals and those in the medical field came together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital.

Groote Schuur Hospital celebrated the 50th anniversary of the world’s first heart transplant which was carried out at the hospital by Dr Christiaan Barnard on December 3 in 1967 and which put South Africa on the map.

Since then the hospital has achieved many medical firsts, including the first human liver transplant using the heterotropic technique in 1983; the discovery of a technique to locate brain tumours without invasive surgery in 1989, the first HIV positive-to-positive kidney transplant in 2008, the first combined ultrasound and mammography device tested in 2015 and this year, the first brain operation through the eye.

The hospital commemorated the occasion this past week by reliving the events of 1967 which saw patient Louis Washkansky as the recipient of the first heart transplant before he succumbed to pneumonia after 18 days.

Medical practices around heart surgery have since advanced and medical experts from around the world gathered at the hospital in honour of the anniversary and to discuss how to bring the benefits of heart surgery to 33 million people who are affected by rheumatic heart disease.

Heather Coombes, assistant to the head of the hospital’s cardiac unit, explained that the hospital along with other medical experts are going to establish the “Cape Town Declaration” this month in honour of Dr Chris Barnard, which will focus on bringing heart surgeries to those in impoverished areas.

The initiative will see many of the world’s leaders in cardiothoracic surgery, academics, cardiologists and policy makers work together to save the lives of millions of people.

Head of the Christiaan Barnard Department for Cardiothoracic Surgery at Groote Schuur, Professor Peter Zilla, explained that rheumatic heart disease occurs most frequently among people living in crowded conditions with limited access to healthcare.

He said that an initial untreated infection of the throat with streptococcal bacteria leads to an immune response of the body that inadvertently also attacks a patient’s heart valves.

“It will be the first time ever that a declaration of this nature, aiming specifically at bringing the benefits of up-to-date heart surgery to impoverished communities, will be endorsed by such an influential group of professionals.

“I predict it will mark a turning point in the delivery of lifesaving medical procedures to millions of people in the developing world,” said Professor Zilla.

He said the declaration reaffirms the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital’s position as a global player in the field of heart surgery. Earlier this year a start-up company of UCT called Strait Access Technologies (SAT) received two global awards for innovation in cardiac surgery.

The awards were for the invention of a heart valve and procedure that will enable a general surgeon in a medium-sized hospital to replace a heart valve without the need for open-heart surgery.