Chris Barnard – daring, driven and brilliant but not very nice
CHRIS Barnard, the first man to perform a heart transplant, wasn’t a particularly nice man. Answering a question in a TV interview about leaving his first wife, Louwtjie, who was in her 40s, to marry the 19-year-old heiress Barbara Zoellner, Barnard replied with a smile: “Why eat biltong when you can have fillet steak?”
He loved women and was serially unfaithful to all three his wives. He also kissed and told: in his autobiography One Life he wrote that after he and the Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida had “celebrated several times” one night in London, she took him back to his hotel in her Jaguar. “Besides a fur coat, she wasn’t wearing anything else.”
Fortunately lack of niceness is not a bar to great achievement – in fact it may mitigate against it. His daughter Deirdre, formerly a top waterskier who competed internationally, was at one point far more famous than her father.
She is by all accounts a very nice woman, but her father, who was her coach, frustratedly said in a magazine interview she lacked the killer instinct. Himself a driven man, Barnard said it was a relief to him when he abandoned Deirdre’s career and focused on his own.
And he was talented: determined, clever, occasionally ruthless, ambitious to a fault, and extremely good looking. What’s more, he came from behind: he beat a poverty-stricken background as one of five sons of a Karoo Calvinist missionary to qualify as a doctor at UCT.
His father Adam worked among Beaufort West’s 7 000-strong coloured population for 37 years, and was looked on with disdain by the white townsfolk. This background meant Barnard, and later his brother Marius, also a heart surgeon and later an MP, rejected apartheid’s strictures.
Their wards were desegregated, with black nurses treating white patients and vice versa. An American patient Barnard operated on said he hoped he would get a white heart. Barnard replied he couldn’t say as he could not tell them apart.
The family was very poor – the Barnard brothers were able to study at UCT only thanks to a fund set up to help Afrikaner children’s academic studies. But it did not cover all his fees, and certainly didn’t pay for transport, so Barnard, who was staying with a brother and his wife in Pinelands, had to walk about 13km to and from classes daily.
Ironically, Abraham, the brother one up from Chris, died of a heart condition before his third birthday. Afterwards Chris and Marius would say Abraham had probably had a hole in the heart, a condition easily fixed today. Years later Chris and Marius operated on many holein-heart children in South Africa and abroad.
Author James-Brent Styan readably covers Chris’s early career in South Africa and the US, but Heartbreaker becomes a pageturner when he reaches the runup to the first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital.
In late 1967 Barnard was of course not the only cardiac surgeon preparing to perform a heart transplant; several doctors in the US were also ready. The problem was a legal one: when could a donor be classified as dead?
Hearts have to be transplanted quickly, because once the donor has died, the heart rapidly deteriorates. In the US and Europe it was accepted that a patient was dead when their heart stopped beating. Another definition of death was brain death, but there was a fear among US doctors that if they removed a beating heart from a brain-dead patient they could be accused of murder.
In South Africa brain death was legal, so the Groote Schuur heart team had an advantage there. But they also faced a disadvantage: apartheid. There was a fear that if either the donor or recipient was not white, there would be a terrible fall-out, with accusations of “experimenting” on black people.
By late November the team had a white patient, Louis Washkansky, and this meant they needed a white donor. Styan says without this concern the first transplant might have been done two weeks earlier, when a coloured donor heart became available.
Heartbreaker is not a hagiography of Barnard, who comes across as a flawed but brilliant man. Styan also does not shy from other controversies, including that of the role of Hamilton Naki, a man of no formal education who had started his Cape Town career as a gardener at UCT in 1940. A professor of cardiovascular research later employed him as a laboratory assistant, and he became a proficient anaesthetist with animals used in research.
Following Naki’s death in
2005 he became famous after a documentary on his role was released, followed by obituaries in international magazines like The Economist and Time. It was claimed Naki’s vital part in the first transplant had been covered up, and that he had even removed donor Denise Darvall’s heart. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” writes Styan. He quotes emeritus professor Anwar Mall of UCT, who said while Naki and the other laboratory assistants played a significant role in UCT research and were involved in preparatory work for the transplant, they did not take part in it.
Mall is quoted: “Sadly the image of Hamilton Naki was damaged by the misinformation. He was never involved with human patients. It would have been illegal since he was not a qualified medical doctor.”
Today, reports Styan, 210 people die every day of heart-related disease. More worryingly, heart disease is the leading cause of death among South African children under five. And there are about 4 300 South Africans waiting for organ donations.
We read of the deterioration of the service in South Africa’s state hospitals, but Styan points out UCT’s cardiology division is still doing world-class research, of which Barnard was a pioneer.
See this and other reviews by Horler on her website The Books Page (thebookspage.co.za)
HEARTBREAKER – CHRISTIAAN BARNARD AND THE FIRST HEART TRANSPLANT