November 2017

By Ansa Heyl, Science Writer and Editor at the University of Pretoria and MPhil STS student at CREST, Stellenbosch University

Spread out against the slopes of Devil’s Peak, Cape Town’s renowned Groote Schuur Hospital marks the site of the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant by Dr Chris Barnard and his team. In the Old Main Building, the original emergency room where the events leading up to this historic operation started to unfold, now houses the reception area of the Heart of Cape Town Museum. Here visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the drama, science and history of the event that captured the imagination of the world in 1967, and ushered in a new medical era.

Upon entering the museum, the sense of history surrounding the landmark event is immediately evident. A full scale mural of the site of the accident that claimed the life of Denise Darvall, the young woman who would inadvertently become the donor of the most famous heart in history, dominates the small trauma room next to the entrance, bringing home the message that there is a lot more to this story than skilled doctors and historic photographs. This is also where the two-hour guided tour of the museum starts. The story of Denise, who eventually died due to injuries sustained when she was struck by a drunk driver while on a family outing, is told with compassion and respect, assuring that the role of the donor and her family is honoured and acknowledged alongside that of everyone else who played a major role in this surgical feat.

From the trauma ward, the tour moves on to a photo gallery, where photos and press clippings of Barnard and his surgical team shortly after the operation, as well as in the months and years following the event, are prominently displayed. Part of the gallery is devoted to photographs of Louis Washkansky, the 54-year-old recipient of Denise Darvall’s heart, who was immortalised in history as the world’s first surviving recipient of a donor heart. Photographs of some of Barnard’s later transplant patients are also featured, and chronicle their journeys following their life changing surgery.

Following this overview of the people involved in the story, the attention shifts to the science and research that preceded the first successful human heart transplant. The animal lab where Barnard conducted experiments on more than 50 dogs in an effort to perfect the technique of heart transplantation, has been painstakingly recreated and features a silicon model of an operation being performed on a dog. Although animal lovers may find the display disconcerting, it again demonstrates the complexity of the story and gives one pause to consider the amount of preparation, effort and sacrifice that preceded the fateful day that would mark one of human kind’s greatest achievements.

The next leg of the journey through history, affords visitors the opportunity to learn about the events both leading up to and following the 3rd of December 1967 in the words of the people involved by way of a film screening in the museum’s auditorium. The film features interviews with some of the role-players, and also touches on the ethical and moral implications that the team had to deal with at the time.

Following the thought provoking film screening, the attention is once again placed on the selfless act of generosity of the Darvall family, through a recreation of Denise’s bedroom, where some of her personal effects such as novels that she liked to read, music she liked to listen to, some of her clothes and her pencil sketches are on display. This once again emphasises the human side of the events surrounding the history, and reminds one that the organ that was so selflessly donated by a grieving family to save a man’s life and subsequently played such a vital role in the advancement of medical knowledge, belonged to a real person.

From Denise’s bedroom, one moves through to a scene recreated from a famous photograph of Chris Barnard taking a phone call in his office, which again demonstrates the humanity of the story – this time from a different perspective. Here visitors are able to learn more about the man behind the legend, with the world renowned surgeon being described as a multi-faceted man who aroused respect and admiration, as well as controversy and sometimes, profound dislike. That being said it is made very clear throughout that Barnard had an amazing bedside manner and always put his patients first, even if that attracted the scorn of his peers.

The tour culminates in another painstakingly recreated scene that draws one right into the drama and history surrounding the surgical team’s historic feat. The recreation of the surgery in the actual operating theatres where it occurred even features part of the original heart-lung machine that was used in the operation. The tour guide’s narration of the events that transpired in the early morning hours of Sunday, 3 December 1967 comes to life through the silicon mannequins and the recreated operation scene, and one can almost feel the tension that must have permeated the space all those years ago. One account of the operation talks about Barnard running between the two theatres during the transplant operation, and the fact that one is able to move between the two theatres and see the two patients (Denise Darvall and Louis Washkansky) on the operating tables in the respective operating theatres, once again brings history to life.

The final leg of the tour, deals with the aftermath of the historic operation. In the recreated recovery room occupied by Washkansky following the operation, visitors learn about the period after history was made by Barnard and his team. Here one is once again made acutely aware of how this watershed moment in history touched the lives of so many people, from those that were intimately involved, like the Washansky and Darvall families and the members of the surgical team, to members of the public and the international community who followed Washkansky’s progress until his death from pneumonia 18 days after the operation.

From Washansky’s room, one moves into a long hallway where letters and telegrams of acclaim and criticism for Barnard and his team are displayed. The wooden display cases house messages from all over the world that were sent from people representing all walks of life. The content of the letters and telegrams range from words of praise to aggressively scornful reprimands, and clearly demonstrates the ethical backlash and attention that the surgery received on the international stage.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of this historic operation, consider paying the Heart of Cape Town Museum a visit. Not only does this complex present an unique opportunity to step into one of history’s defining moments, but it also presents one with a fascinating and all too human account of the real people that made it possible for the medical profession to advance to where it stands today. Open heart surgery procedures and transplants continue to save thousands of lives annually, and immersing oneself in the stories of the people who made it all possible, right where history was made half a century ago, is an absolutely amazing experience.