Every Second Counts-The Race to the First Heart Transplant

 

Donald McRae traces Christiaan Barnard's route to victory in the race to perform the first human heart transplant.

Donald McRae traces Christiaan Barnard's route to victory in the race to perform the first human heart transplant.

 

 

There’s nothing like being the first to do something. 

It doesn’t really matter what.

It can be the first to climb Mt. Everest, the first to sail around the world, or the first to climb a skyscraper.

While others may, and in most cases do, come afterward, and better the original mark, the person who beat all the others retains a special distinction.

I wrote recently about Neal Bascomb’s account of the quest to run the first sub-4:00 mile-a quest that ultimately was realized by Sir Roger Bannister in May 1954.

As Bascomb notes, the record has dropped by more than 15 seconds during the past half-century, and more than 1,000 people have beaten Bannister’s time, yet still his accomplishment is noted as having broken a seemingly impassable barrier.

The race to transplant the first human heart was another such competition-a high-stakes contest in which worldwide glory and fame were the reward.

Donald McRae was a young boy in South Africa when Christiaan Barnard earned this distinction in December 1967.   As an adult and a professional author, McRae went back to the seminal childhood event to explore the other competitors in the race and how Barnard earned his unlikely victory.  

Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant The First Human Heart tells this captivating story.

McRae has a rich array of characters to work with, and makes the most of the opportunity they present. 

Among the major ones: Norman Shumway, who arguably had a far more productive career than Barnard, but narrowly missed performing the frist successful transplant; the motorcycle-riding Adrian Kantrowitz, who pulled off the first one in the United States; and Richard Lower, another impressive surgeon based in Virginia whose surgeries on animals in the 50s paved the way for Barnard’s success.

McRae skillfully explains the science of the heart transplantation, the personalities of his characters, and even the social fabric of the different societies in which they worked.  The different definition of death and the law of the then-apartheid system ended up giving an edge to Barnard, who shortly before performing the transplant had dedicated himself to his daughter’s water skiing career.

Barnard did not handle the success and acclaim well, having a very public affair with Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida before divorcing his first of several wives, according to McRae.  The successive women to be called Mrs. Barnard were younger and younger, and his relationships with colleagues and professional productivity, which had been strained and limited before his big moment, both dropped significantly.

One feels McRae’s affinity for Shumway, who trained an entire generation of surgeons and lived in way that seemingly was more in synch with the author’s moral sensibilities. 

Still, as with Bannister, Edmund Hillary and Sir Francis Drake, Barnard did earn his distinction and will continue to be remembered for it, even if he was not a particularly admirable person or contributory professional.   McRae’s book provides an engaging, informative and accessible read for how the South African arrived at his glorious moment.

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