Christiaan Barnard

On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday, I was world renowned.’ (Christiaan Barnard)

It is now more than two months since I was discharged from the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape town. I entered the hospital in an ambulance and left six days later in an Uber. I entered with a bloody head from a mugging, and left with my head, a knee, an ankle and my groin bandaged, and two pre-cautionary stents in an artery. I also left with a prescription for seven pharmaceuticals, four more that I had when I entered. During my stay, I had been patched up, injected for tetanus, x-rayed, scanned, MRI-ed, blood and urine tested, and for four days, I was hooked up to monitors in the cardiac intensive care unit (ICU). All in all, a most interesting experience, but one I could happily have done without.

But there were some positive outcomes resulting from my six-day stay.

Firstly, I did not have to get up to go to the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night; my nurse would bring me a bottle, tilt the bed, and return when I had finished.

Then there was the morning bed bath, followed by the changing of the sheets, with me still in the bed.  And of course, there was the food – breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a choice of five courses to each. I must say that when I started to eat after a couple of days, I found the food to be excellent, unlike any institutional food I had ever experienced. My only complaint was the lack of a wine choice!

And to cap it all, there was no load-shedding. While the rest of the country was struggling with two or three blackouts every day, the hospital had constant power.  If it had not been for the lack of wine, I would have been tempted to try and stay on for a few more days!

But my most outstanding impression was the quality of the nursing staff. In the ICU, there was a nurse for every two patients. They worked 12-hour shifts and were in constant attendance. There were patients like me, under observation, but there were many others who were obviously very seriously ill. I suspect that the nurses’ jobs were not easy, especially when there was an emergency with a patient.

I don’t have any recall of the doctor in emergency. I guess that I had concussion for at least the first day. After that I was visited every day by Dr Mothilal and Dr Levetan. They always left me feeling that I was in good hands. And it was Dr Levetan who later entered the theatre, singing the Irish Rugby national anthem, before he explored my artery via my groin, and eventually inserted the pre-cautionery stents.

The original Christiaan Barnard Memorial hospital was in the Cape Town city centre until 5 December 2016, when it moved to a brand-new location on the foreshore, adjacent to the Cape Town International Conference Centre. The new hospital has 245 beds and eleven theatres.

The view of the end of Table Mountain from the tenth floor ICU

Christiaan Barnard (1922-2001) was the South African surgeon who performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation. It was in late 1967 and at that time, I was living in Toronto. I remember the occasion very well, for news of the operation was sensational and daily reports were included in news broadcasts, world-wide.

The operation, led by Christiaan Barnard and his team of some 30 medical staff, took place in the Groote Schuur hospital, in Cape town. They transplanted the heart of Denise Darvall, an accident victim, into the chest of Louis Washkanshy, who had a terminal heart disease. He survived 18 days, before succumbing to pneumonia. Barnard’s second transplant patient, Philip Blaiberg, survived for 18 months in early 1968, and was able to return home. The possibility of heart transplants became a reality.

Christiaan Barnard in Florence in 1969 (photo from internet)

Christiaan Barnard retired in 1983, when rheumatoid arthritis ended his surgical career. He died in 2001 in Cyprus, following an asthma attack. His memory lives on in the hospital that carries his name.

2 thoughts on “Christiaan Barnard”

  1. So sorry to hear about your mugging and subsequent health issues! Do hope that you are feeling much better now and Hugh and I wish you and your family a very happy Christmas and good health in 2023.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Josephine. My Jewish friends always toast to ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. Perhaps my toast should be to ‘Next year in Portrush!’


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: