PART 3: First heart transplant - 'It's going to work!'

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Heartbreaker - Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant by James-Brent Styan.
Heartbreaker - Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant by James-Brent Styan.

At 5.43am on Sunday morning the actual transplantation was complete and Denise Darvall's heart had been transplanted into Louis Washkansky's chest.

The theatre sisters and surgeons from Theatre B were seated in the gallery, waiting, some with balled fists, filled with tension at the proceedings in front of them. It was the moment of truth. Would a heart that had been allowed to die, start up again? 

The spectators in the gallery leaned forward. Barnard called for the paddles of the defibrillator. The room was quiet. The moment had arrived – would Denise Darvall's heart beat?

It had not beaten since it had been removed from her chest hours earlier.

Electrodes were connected to the heart through which an electrical current was sent into Washkansky's new heart for a fraction of a second. 
For the surgeons, the wait was the longest of their lives – the wait to see if the transplanted organ would start to beat in the chest of another person. 

Washkansky lay there, motionless.

And then, following what felt like an eternity, it came like a lightning strike – a rapid contraction and then the heart started to move. The clock read 5.52am on that Sunday when Denise Darvall's heart started beating in Louis Washkansky's body. The last challenge was to see if the heart would continue to beat once Washkansky was taken off bypass. This happened slowly.

And when Washy was weaned off the machine, the surgeons saw the new heart kick in.

Then Christiaan shouted: 'It's going to work!'

Someone started laughing. Someone else was cheering. The surgeons stood back.

Anne Washkansky phoned at 6.00am and was told the operation had been a success. 

"I asked Prof Barnard if the heart was working and he replied "beautifully". I wanted to cry."

Louis Washkansky woke up the next day smiling. 

He couldn't speak yet due to the tubes in his nose and throat. But he was smiling. And alive.

Later, when he was able speak, he was asked, 'Do you know where you are?'

'Yes, I know. I'm in Groote Schuur Hospital. They promised me a new heart. I feel a lot better now,' he said.

There were endless questions for Christiaan Barnard too. In archive footage, a French journalist with a thick black moustache asked the last question of the press conference. He was standing to the left of Barnard in the lecture room. The room was jam-packed.

'Doctor, will Mr Washkansky now have a long and healthy life?' Barnard combed through his long straight hair with his fingers as he leaned backwards in his chair before answering.

'It's always difficult making a prognosis about something that's never been done before. I'm sure he will live longer than he would have done without the operation. I cannot say how many months or days, but there's no doubt that not only will he live longer, he will also be much more comfortable than he was before.'

Edward Darvall never really recovered from the trauma of the accident.

'He was devastated. The accident destroyed him and he never went to work again. Twenty-seven months later, Edward Darvall would also be dead, leaving behind two young boys to fend for themselves. 

'That's life. You can't change it. A person never thinks something like this will happen to you,' Stephen Darvall would state in an interview with Die Burger later.

Stephen met Barnard once.

'Dr Barnard looked like a decent enough man. I met him once in 1968 at City Hall. Today, though, most people don't even recognise the name.
People forget.'

* Adapted from Heartbreaker – Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant by James-Brent Styan.

Part 1: First heart transplant - 'Washy could always take care of himself'

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

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