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Getting to the 'Heart' of the Matter in Cape Town

January 28, 2010 By:
Lauren Kramer, Jewish Exponent Feature
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The Heart of Cape Town Museum, reflecting the science of Dr. Christiaan Barnard

There aren't many cities where you'll find a hospital on the list of attractions, but Cape Town is one of them.

The city on the southernmost tip of Africa is home to the Heart of Cape Town Museum, which commemorates the first ever human-to-human heart transplant performed in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. It's housed inside the Groote Schuur Hospital on the slopes of Table Mountain -- a massive, stately building flanked by palm trees.

That's where Louis Washkansky, a 53-year-old Jewish grocer, lay waiting and praying for a new heart back in 1967. The doctors had told him that it was the only thing that would save his life. When a 25-year-old woman received massive, irreparable head injuries in a car crash a few kilometers away and was declared brain dead, Washkansky's opportunity arrived, and he became the first person in the world to receive a heart transplant.

The museum relays the story of that first transplant in detail. Join a guided tour, and you are taken through the steps of Barnard's life, learning about the young donor and her tragic accident, the health reports of Washkansky and the first-person testimony of his doctor.

Before he died in 2001, Barnard recalled feeling scared during that first heart-transplant operation.

"After we took out his heart, I looked down at the body I was operating on and felt terrified," he said in a documentary shown at the museum. "I'd done plenty of operations before then, but I'd never before looked into a body that didn't contain a heart."

On a hot summer's day in Cape Town, I found myself in the same room where a team of some 30 doctors and nurses had worked 42 years earlier, among them another Jew, Dr. Joseph Ozinsky, the senior anesthetist. Though the transplant operation seemed successful at the time, Washkansky would live only 18 days after it before dying of pneumonia.

His was the first of six heart transplants by Barnard.

And one of those recipients wound up living 25 years more.

The surgical chamber today is still filled with green-robed figures bent over a patient, but they're plastic models reconstructing the events of that day. For his work, Barnard would become an internationally recognizable figure, finding himself in the company of the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Pope John Paul VI; and Princess Diana.

He received many honors and awards, but along with that praise came harsh criticism. The museum displays some of the letters that arrived at his workplace, one of which called him an "immoral de-gutterer," while another insisted he should be arrested and charged with murder.

In the international medical arena, too, Barnard was forced to defend his actions before other doctors, who accused him of stealing the thunder of U.S. doctors Richard Lower, Norman Shumway and Adrian Kantrowitz. While they had conducted more research and canine experiments than had Barnard, they hadn't yet done a human-to-human transplant.

Some of the actual hearts Barnard transplanted are on display in the museum, looking like odd pieces of rubbery chicken since their removal from the human body many years ago.

"For ethical reasons you cannot photograph the hearts!" our guide insists repeatedly.

One of those once belonged to Denise Darvall, the 25-year-old woman whose heart was transplanted into Washkansky's body. The museum has devoted one room to her, featuring a reconstruction of her bedroom.

Though Barnard became a national and international hero in the years that followed, behind his charismatic smile was a personal life that lay in shambles. He lived through three divorces and lost one of his six children.

In his old age, he agreed to endorse anti-ageing creams with dubious results; this added controversy to his reputation. Ultimately, he died alone in Cyprus at the age of 78.

But the heart transplant that he pioneered was a significant medical breakthrough that continues to save lives today. In the United States alone, it is performed in 160 hospitals, with a 75 percent five-year success rate.

The Heart of Cape Town Museum remembers him as a man of skill and passion, a doctor who had the courage to get to the "heart" of the matter.

Of course, the heart surgeon's museum isn't the only place of interest in this city, especially for Jewish visitors. Cape Town boasts two Jewish museums that are well worth the time: The Cape Town Holocaust Centre (www.ctholocaust. co.za) and the South Africa Jewish Museum (www.sajewishmuseum.co.za).

Located directly opposite each other in close proximity to the Gardens Shul, a kosher restaurant and the Jewish library, the two museums discuss the history of the Jews in the country, and the role of South Africa in the Holocaust.

For more information, go to: www. heartofcapetown.co.za.

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