First Heart Transplant

Image Courtesy of health24

Fifty years ago, the first human heart transplant was performed in South Africa. Louis Washkansky, 53, was terminally ill with heart failure. The donor, Denise Darvall, was just 25. She suffered a fatal brain injury after a car accident in which her mother also died. Her father, Edward, who knew his daughter loved to help others, took the generous decision to donate her organs.

Louis’s first words after the transplant were: “I’m still alive.” But he died of pneumonia 18 days later.

The first heart transplant in the UK, was the tenth to take place in the world, on 3 May 1968. It was carried out at the National Heart Hospital in London. Performed by Donald Ross, a South-African British thoracic surgeon. Professor Jane Somerville (then Dr. Jane Somerville) was the physician to the transplant, she recalls “Donald [Ross] said to me, I don’t know, about lunchtime on that day, “What are you doing tonight, Jane?”, and I said, “Why do you want to know?”. So he said, “You are going to be the physician to the first transplant.”, so that’s how I came into it.”

The recipient was Fred West, 45, and the donor was Patrick Ryan. Professor Somerville was present at the removal of the donor heart at Guy’s.

The media responded with a frenzy, various criticisms flooded in, Professor Somerville explains, “We were really very elated late into the night, and the House Governor, Mr [R J] Denney, stayed on with us, I think he didn’t know what was going to happen next… outside the National Heart Hospital, which is in a little narrow street as you know, this massive amount of media, something we had never encountered in our lives… It was quite terrifying from then on, for the next six or seven weeks, we had a rotten time with the press one way or another.”

Now when we see heart transplant almost as a routine operation, the resistance to it at the beginning seems quite incredible

Fred West survived for 45 days. After a spate of heart transplants in 1968 and 1969, it became obvious that the survival rates were not getting any better. They were stopped in the UK, and for the most part around the world, until 1979.

In November 1988, Tineke Dixon, who had two holes in her heart and Eisenmenger’s syndrome, which caused her lungs to start failing received a heart and lung transplant. She was not expected to live beyond her teenage years but is now a 46-year-old doctor.

As a teenager she spent much of her time in a wheelchair and was dependent on oxygen at night. She became so ill she was put on the transplant list at the age of 16 and was told she had about six months to live.

“I can still remember lying in a hospital bed and hearing my parents’ cries of anguish coming down a corridor as the doctors told them I had only a few months left,” she said. “It was an emotional time and I remember it vividly.”

Fortunately, transplants had developed to the point where patients were far more likely to survive for a longer duration after their transplant. Tineke’s transplant was carried out at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and despite some complications soon after the surgery, she is still active and well to this day.

Tineke is planning on celebrating the 30th anniversary of her transplant by sailing 5,200 miles from  Auckland to Stanley via Cape Horn to raise vital funds for a number of charities. One of the charities Tineke is raising funds for is The Somerville Foundation. If you would like to support Tineke through her challenge, click here to sponsor her:

Although heart transplants have come a long way in 50 years, those who receive a transplant still require continuous support throughout their life. The Somerville Foundation is the only charity in the U.K. that dedicates their work to supporting adults born with a heart condition all over the country. We have recently opened the U.K.’s first dedicated congenital heart disease research centre in partnership with The University of Suffolk. If you would like to support our unique research, please donate to us by using the button below.