HEART transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard dies at 78

Sunday, September 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world's first heart transplant and became an international celebrity, died Sunday in a resort on the southwest coast of Cyprus. He was 78.

The heart transplant pioneer collapsed in the morning as he was sitting by a swimming pool at the Coral Bay Hotel in the southwest coastal town of Paphos, said the hotel's assistant manager.

A Cypriot doctor tried to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but without success, the assistant manager said on condition of anonymity.

Barnard was rushed to the Paphos General Hospital, where his death was confirmed on arrival, said Cypriot Health Minister Frixos Savvides. Savvides said the cause of death was probably a heart attack but that this would verified in an autopsy to be conducted Monday.

Barnard was a frequent visitor to Paphos, which made him a freeman of the town earlier this year.

A native of South Africa, Barnard performed the world's first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on Dec. 3, 1967. The patient, 53-year-old dentist Louis Washkansky, lived 18 days before succumbing to rejection of the new heart.

The transplant transformed Barnard into an international celebrity. He received awards from around the world and was entertained by glitterati such as the late Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Diana.

``We really did not see it as a big event,'' Barnard told The Associated Press in 1997. ``We did not even take photographs of the operation that night.''

After Washkansky died, Barnard and his team persevered with their innovative surgical procedure.

His second transplant patient, Philip Blaiberg, lived for 18 months after the operation, and the survival time of patients has increased ever since.

Today, 90 percent of patients survive a heart transplant operation, with an 85 percent chance of living for a year and a 70 percent to 75 percent chance of lasting five years.

Barnard's longest-surviving patient, Dirk van Zyl, lived with an implanted heart for 23 years before dying in 1996 of diabetes unrelated to his heart condition.

Barnard, who retired in 1987, predicted that someday human hearts will be grown artificially to suit patients, using genetic engineering techniques that already can produce human skin.

``There is now tremendous progress in genetic engineering and it may be possible eventually to grow a human heart,'' he said.

The son of a clergyman, Barnard grew up in Beaufort West, a small town in the dusty Karoo semi-desert region of South Africa. He said the highlight of his career was performing operations on children with abnormal hearts, each operation requiring different techniques and skills.

``That was real surgery,'' he said.

He was married three times and had six children.