Italian surgeons find world's oldest artificial heart valve implanted by Chris Barnard 50 years ago

Professor Chris Barnard. (University of Cape Town)
Professor Chris Barnard. (University of Cape Town)

Surgeons in Italy have made a rare discovery while operating on a 60-year-old woman - an artificial mitral valve that is almost 50 years old, and still working perfectly. 

According to a statement by the San Giovanni di Dio e Ruggi d’Aragona hospital, in Salerno, the prosthetic valve was implanted in 1969 at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town by none other than the celebrated South African heart transplant pioneer Professor Christiaan Barnard.

By that time, Barnard was considered the world's best heart surgeon, having performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant two years earlier, in 1967, making him one of the most famous people in the world. 

READ: Heart transplantation continues to capture the human imagination - world-renowned heart expert

According to The Guardian, in 1964, when the woman was five, doctors diagnosed a serious mitral valve anomaly. Five years later, in 1969, family members suggested she travel to South Africa for the life-saving surgery. 

At the time, there was no other hospital where the life-saving intervention could be performed, according to the Italian hospital's statement. 

She was accompanied to Cape Town by her 25-year-old brother "to an unknown place to most and where they didn't even understand a word", the hospital said. 

Following the implant by Barnard, the little girl spent four months at Groote Schuur recovering. 

During recent surgery on the now 60-year-old woman, surgeons discovered the valve still in perfect working order. 

Upon discovering it, the doctors said there was no record of an older valve having been found, The Guardian reported. 

Surgeons in Salerno were reportedly thrilled with their discovery, which they described as being almost "archaeological" in significance.

"A very important piece of the history of world medicine has passed through the hands of heart surgeons of the AOU San Giovanni di Dio and Ruggi d'Aragona of Salerno: a cardiac prosthesis implanted by Christiaan Barnard," the hospital said.

The woman’s operation was a success and she was discharged from the hospital a few days later.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the pioneering operation in which Barnard transferred the heart of a person who had died of a head injury to Louis Washkansky, 54, News24 reported. 

Barnard died on September 2, 2001, after suffering an asthma attack while on holiday in Cyprus. He was 78.

At the time, former president Nelson Mandela expressed sorrow at Barnard's death. "His death is a great loss to the country after all the contributions he made. He was also very vocal against apartheid," he said from his Johannesburg home, News24 reported. 

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