Chris Barnard – dar­ing, driven and bril­liant but not very nice

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - ARTS - Vivien Hor­ler Jonathan Ball Pub­lish­ers

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 (the­


Chris Barnard

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