PART 2: First heart transplant - 'Denise never saw the motor vehicle coming'

Denise Darvall, who provided the donor heart for the first heart transplant.
Denise Darvall, who provided the donor heart for the first heart transplant.

Saturday, 2 December 1967, was a glorious day in Cape Town. 

Like most Capetonians, the Darvall family enjoyed leaving the confines of the apartment in fine weather, and this particular Saturday, they decided to visit friends in Milnerton, a suburb roughly 12 kilometres from the city centre on the way to Blouberg.

The Darvall family lived up a side street near Jan van Riebeek High School in Tamboerskloof. They had been living in their two-bedroomed flat for a while. 25-year-old Denise Ann Darvall was a banking clerk and the family’s main breadwinner. She was a great fan of Barbara Cartland novels and didn’t much appreciate the latest music fads such as Elvis or the Beatles. Instead, she rather enjoyed Joan Sutherland and opera music.

The Darvalls were not well off, but for Denise – the family called her Denny – things were looking up. She had just been promoted at the bank and was getting paid R120 per month. After the raise, she bought herself a new blue and white Ford Anglia, which became the family of five’s prized possession. That morning, Denise, her 53-year-old mom Myrtle, 66-year-old dad Edward and youngest brother, Keith, who was 14 years old, left in the Anglia with Denny behind the wheel and her mom seated next to her. Denny’s other brother, 17-year-old Stephen, chose to stay at home. He would never again see his sister or mother alive.

The four Darvalls left their apartment in Gilmourhill Road at 2.45pm. They never liked to arrive at friends empty handed, so they decided to
stop for a cake at Wrench’s Bakery in Main Road, Observatory. Joseph Copenberg’s bakery had an excellent reputation for freshly baked goods and the family decided to buy one of the bakery’s famous caramel cakes for 80 cents.

Denise drove to the bakery, a detour of around 3.2 kilometres. She drove southwards down Main Road, with Table Mountain on the right, and
parked on the side of the road opposite the bakery. There was a concrete island in the centre of the road separating the opposite lanes. Denny and her mother got out of the car and went to the bakery. The men remained in the car.

Myrtle and Denise were on their way back and were crossing the road when an approaching truck blocked the view of the oncoming traffic in the second lane behind the truck. The 36-year old Frederick Prins had been married for two years. He’d had a few drinks and was on his way to his home in Rosebank. 

He was meant to pick up his wife, but decided he had to return to work first to ensure that a scheduled delivery had gone out on time. He turned his car around and drove back to his place of work. He was in a hurry when he overtook the truck in Main Road across from Wrensch’s bakery.

Denise Darvall and her mother Myrtle never saw the motor vehicle coming. Just after 3.30pm, on Saturday 2 December, Prins hit the two Darvalls as they were crossing the road.

Events had been set in motion.

Extract concludes on Monday morning 4 December… 

* Adapted from the new book called Heartbreaker – Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant by James-Brent Styan, available in all bookstores from Monday 4 December.

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