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The gift of life: 50 years of human heart transplant
On 3 December 1967, Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human heart transplant on 53-year-old Louis Washkansky at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. Washkansky was a South African grocer suffering from congestive/severe heart failure. His donor was Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old woman, who was fatally injured in a car accident and declared brain dead at the same hospital Washkansky was admitted. With full permission from the donor’s family, Christiaan Barnard, head of the Department of Experimental Surgery at the Groote Schuur Hospital, performed the medical operation. He modified the technique which was initially developed by American surgeons, Norman Shumway and Richard Lower, who achieved the world’s first successful heart transplant in a dog, at Stanford University in California in 1958. After the successful heart transplant into Washkansky, he had drugs to suppress his immune system and prevent his body from rejecting the new heart. Washkansky died 18 days later from pneumonia. Despite this, the transplant was touted successful as Washkansky’s new heart had functioned normally until his death.

This year marks 50 years since the world’s first human-to-human heart transplantation. The biggest drawback in heart transplant has always been the same as it was before, and that is the lack of suitable donor organs. While in most countries, people express an interest in donating their organs after being declared brain dead, only a small percentage of people undergo circumstances where organ donation is possible.

This shortage is what drives the innovation to experiment with xenotransplantation, improving immunosuppressant drugs, and the development of artificial hearts or coronary assist devices. Ultimately, the key is in increasing the patients’ survival rates.

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