When Dr. Christian Barnard performed the first human heart transplant, he shocked the world by taking the risk. But since that day in 1967, thousands of heart patients have owed gratitude, and their extended lives, to the renowned physician who died last week at 78.
Other heart doctors were making plans to perform transplants that year. However, Dr. Barnard seized the moment and forged ahead on a medical miracle when he removed the heart from the victim of a traffic accident and implanted it into a 59-year-old grocer in a hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.
The patient, Louis Washkansky, only lived for 18 days, not long by today's standards. From 85 percent to 90 percent of heart transplant patients in the United States survive about one year, while 75 percent live for five years.
But in the late 1960s, Dr. Barnard's decision to transplant the heart of the brain-dead accident victim stirred heated debate. Back then, local prosecutors threatened to arrest doctors who harvested organs from brain-dead victims.
Indeed, that controversy was somewhat like today's embryonic stem-cell issue, wherein some who are bent on stopping the research believe that each and every cell has in it the potential to become a human being.
In Dr. Barnard's day, some people thought his surgery unnatural. In the 34 years since, there have been 100,000 heart transplants, many of them at 160 hospitals in the United States.
Surely those patients are grateful that Dr. Barnard, whose second heart transplant patient lived 19 months, took the risk.
Dr. Barnard, who studied at the University of Minnesota, then returned to his native South Africa, also was a pioneer in other areas of medicine, including congenital birth defects and artificial heart valves.
Medical history is full of miracles of one sort or another. Surely more such phenomena are in the making, but so far, little comes close to topping the marvel of heart transplants.
For that, we can thank Dr. Barnard for recognizing an opportunity, taking a chance, and ignoring the upset that his work temporarily caused society.
Were it not for physicians and other scientists like him, medical advances would be rare.