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Louis Washkansky (1913-67)

How is success in medicine measured? Even if the patient dies, the procedure may be considered a medical success if it paves the way for further developments and improves understanding.

Louis Washkansky was a Lithuanian Jew who moved to South Africa in 1922 and became a grocer. Although he participated in sport and led a healthy lifestyle, he was diabetic and suffered from an incurable heart disease, resulting in three heart attacks which led to congestive heart failure.

Washkansky was the recipient of the first successful human heart transplant on 3 December 1967. He received the heart of a young woman, Denise Darvall, who had been critically injured in a car accident. His ground-breaking surgery was performed by Christiaan Barnard, who immediately became famous around the world.

Even though Washkansky died 18 days after he received his transplant, his surgery was considered a success and while many other heart transplant patients died after a short period of time in the early period of transplant surgery, advances in drug therapy and surgical techniques have provided a longer life for recipients.

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C Barnard, One Life (Toronto: Collier MacMillan, 1969)