“No operation will help. Let nature take its course.”
This was the diagnosis written on Louis Washkansky’s chart at Groote Schuur Hospital in the last months of 1967.
Around the same time a talented young surgeon, one Dr Christiaan Neethling Barnard, had declared to the head of surgery that his team was ready to perform a human heart transplant. All they needed was a suitable patient and matching donor.
The remarkable weeks that followed that - ultimately ignored - diagnosis are the subject of one of Cape Town’s most remarkable small museums; the Heart of Cape Town.
“This is not a museum, this is a heritage site. This is where it all happened,” says founder Hennie Joubert as we wander through the museum’s pillared entrance, once the hospital’s trauma department. This is where an ambulance crew wheeled in Denise Darvall on the afternoon of 2 December 1967 after she and her mother had been knocked down and killed by a drunk driver. The attractive 25-year-old was tragically about to become part of medical history.
It’s a history brilliantly told in this wonderful museum that traces the research and rivalry involved in performing the world’s first human transplant. However, it’s far from a shrine to Chris Barnard and admirably handles the contentious issue of those closely involved in the ground–breaking surgery, but who ended up in Barnard’s shadow after the operation.
Those such as Hamilton Naki, who is famous for his rise from hospital gardener to surgeon and was an integral part of the team that perfected transplant techniques in the animal laboratory which has been faithfully recreated. Marius Barnard, Chris’ brother, is also given overdue credit. He was the surgeon who removed the healthy heart from Denise, handing it to his brother to make history in an adjoining operating theatre.
An entire room of the museum is, fittingly, dedicated to Denise Darvall. Sketches from her diary adorn the walls, family photos remind us of the loved ones she left behind and a romance novel lies half-opened on the bed; waiting for its owner to return. “If there is no hope for my daughter then you must try to save the life of this man,” were the courageous words of Edward Darvall just hours after losing his wife and daughter.
Although the supporting actors in the drama to follow were brave, courageous and talented it is, of course, the lead character – Dr. Chris Barnard – who takes centre stage in the museum.
A 26-minute documentary traces the turbulent and dramatic life of Barnard. Married three times, father to six children, trained in the USA and South Africa, author of 30 books, pioneering surgeon… it’s impossible to ignore the charisma and driving ambition of the man who dared and won.
As he wrote in his autobiography ‘One Life’: “We (cardiac surgeons) were all just standing shivering around the pool, waiting to see who would dare to jump in first. I did.”
And the stage where he took the leap is the highlight of the museum: operating theatres 2A and 2B; recreated just as they were on 3 December 1967 by some of the theatre nurses who were there on the night.
Recreated down to the smallest detail, the level of authenticity is impressive and adds real drama to what could easily have turned into a kitsch diorama. The original theatre lights hang from the ceiling, the heart-lung machine that kept Washkansky alive is in situ as are swab rags and the scale to calculate the blood he’d lost.
The clock on the wall stands at 5.58am; the moment Darvall’s heart started beating on its own again. Only this time, it was in the chest of Louis Washkansky.
The fame that followed is documented in a display of dozens of letters from royalty and rivals, despite some horrified members of the public labelling him a “ghoul” and “the butcher of Groote Schuur”.
These corridors of Groote Schuur that once rattled with hospital gurneys are now filled with fascinating displays about the surgery that put South Africa on the map, but perhaps the most poignant exhibit is one that may not be photographed.
In a glass case, gazing in on Theatre 2B, are two glass cubes filled with formalin. On the left; Washkansky’s diseased heart, removed in the early hours of 3 December 1967. On the right, the heart of Denise Darvall that let Washkansky live another 18 days before he succumbed to pneumonia.
It’s a poignant, meticulous museum that manages to bring cold, hard medicine to life, and celebrates the tragic and triumphant figures involved. The heart of Cape Town, indeed.
The Heart of Cape Town Museum
Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town
Open daily. Tours at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm.
021 404 1967
R100/adult. Under-10s free. Special rates for school groups.
First published in The Sunday Times; 30 August 2009