Transplanting Resistance to Change

A mannequin of surgeon Christiaan Barnard in his office, together with some original equipment, are used to remember the world’s first human heart transplant in Cape Town in December 1967

How quickly the world changes!

At one time, organ transplantation was just a dream. Yet, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), in calendar year 2019 there were 39,719 total transplants in the United States, up 8.7 percent from 2018 (https://unos.org/data/transplant-trends/). Of these, 3552 were heart transplants.

The first heart transplant was performed on December 3, 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa by famed surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard.  We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

I’m mentioning this because recently I was surprised to learn that this breakthrough that has saved so many lives has an ugly side.  After the operation was announced, Dr. Barnard became the target of a surprising amount of hate mail and criticism. 

There were comments like this letter from Illinois dated a month after the operation — “I have heard of human vultures, but it is the first time I have saw one with a name on it.” Another from Hong Kong said “You had the audacity to assume the authority of God by pretending to become the giver of life.” Can’t all doctors be considered “givers of life”? “We did not realise that it would take the public by storm and create such an outcry,” said specialist nurse Dene Friedmannet.

Thus a medical breakthrough with great potential also becomes a cautionary tale of how resistant we are to change. It seems the more futuristic the change, the greater the resistance. Yet today’s problems are demanding even more radical breakthroughs. Hopefully, future naysayers like the above examples will continue to be mere speedbumps on the road to progress.

By the way, UNOS currently lists 108,846 candidates on waiting lists who need an organ transplant. We still have a long way to go.

For the complete story, see “Behind the drama of the world’s first heart transplant” by Béatrice Debut, which was originally written on November 30, 2017 (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-11-drama-world-heart-transplant.html?).

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