Louis Washkansky
World’s first heart transplant
3rd December 1967

Louis Washkansky first visited Groote Schuur Hospital in April 1966, he had a illness called Cheyne-Stokes which was caused by gross heart failure. At the time he was being seen by Dr Kaplan. In July 1966 Dr Kaplan asked Dr Christiaan Barnard to see Louis and after several tests and an examination Dr Barnard said there was nothing that could be done for Louis.

Imagine this man who everyone had given up on, there was nothing the cardiac team could do for him, yet Louis refused to die.

Louis was 53years old, a well build man, who never told his wife much about how he felt, in fact he would lie and always say he was fine. Although he knew he was running into trouble, but he wasn’t the kind of man to cry about it – not to himself or anybody else.

Louis enjoyed going to football matches, drinking a bit and smoking. He suffered a heart attack and then drove himself to hospital and took the stairs rather than the lift and collapsed, he was lucky on that occasion as he survived, although he was advised he probably wouldn’t survive another attack.

Then November 1967 Christiaan Barnard was ready to perform a heart transplant and Louis was considered to be an ideal candidate.

On the 3rd December 1967 while very ill in hospital a heart donor was found, Denise Darvall had died due to a car accident and her father had agreed to donating her heart for the worlds first heart transplant.

Dr Christiaan Barnard and his team at Groote Schuur Hospital preformed the operation, which was a success and a world media circus began.


Monday 4th Dec 1967 – Day 1
Dr Christiaan Barnard asked
“How are you Louis?”
“Fine….I’m feeling fine.”
“Do you know what we have?”
“You promised me a new heart…..I suppose you gave it to me.”
“Yes we did.”

Tuesday 5th Dec 1967 – Day 2
Louis was given some soup and a soft boiled egg to eat, he also said he was still feeling fine.

Wednesday 6th Dec – Day 3
Louis was joking with one of the nurses about being the new Frankenstein, she replied you are no Frankenstein you are an angel.
Louis went on to say that they are taking more blood out than what is going in. Dr Barnard took his high sprits to be a good sign.

Thursday 7th Dec – Day 4
Louis was still doing well and asking when could he go home, Dr Barnard replied “if you continue to do well maybe by Christmas.” Louis said “that would be a real Christmas present…”

Friday 8th Dec – Day 5
Louis’s urine output was low and his mood had changed he was feeling very low and complaining about all the needles and pins, not being given any rest day or night and that it was driving him crazy. Dr Barnard said he would arrange for him not to be disturbed. Although he didn’t say anything to Louis, he was concerned it may be an infection or rejection.

Saturday – Wednesday Dec 9th – 13th: Day 6 – 10
This morning after some medication from the night before Louis was much better. Once again full of high sprit and joking with the nurses, no more complaints and ready to take on the world again.
He turned on the radio and for the first time heard about himself, the presenter was saying that Louis was now at day 7 and it was a time to be concerned about rejection. The nurse turned the radio off and Louis said “if he thinks I am giving up on this new heart, he’s mishugah (nuts).”

Thursday 14th Dec – Day 11
Due to the steroids to help stop rejection Louis seemed to be always hungary and would get stomach pains if he wasn’t allowed to eat more. The staff also gave him milk to help stop the abdominal pain.
It was to be a busy day for Louis as the Mayor and local Rabbi were going to be allowed to visit him, until now only the hospital staff and his wife Ann had been allowed to see him.
Louis also asked if he could shave himself today saying “when a man can’t shave himself, it’s a terrible feeling – like you are a nobody.”


Friday 15th Dec – Day 12
Louis had a bad nights sleep, with more stomach pains which were relieved with some milk and toast, by the morning he was irritable and now also had some pain in his left shoulder. Blood was taken for several tests to be done and a chest x-ray was also organised.

Today Louis had even more visitors, a cabinet minister and his wife who he hadn’t seen for 5 days due to her having had a cold. He was also going to receive a telephone call from the BBC in London. During that call he was asked what is it like to be famous? He replied “I am not famous, it is the Doctors who are.” Then he was asked what is it like to have a female heart? Louis said “Oh that doesn’t bother me as long as it is a good heart.”

Dr Barnard had cut the interviews short as Louis was very tired and not looking too well. The doctors then examined the blood test results and the x-rays, a miniscule shadow in the left lobe of his left lung was apparent. Louis was also now running a slight temperature 98.6 and still had pain in his chest and shoulder.

Saturday 16th December 1967 – Day 13
Louis had another bad nights sleep and was again grumpy in the morning, he still had a slight pain in his shoulder and chest, his temperature was still 98.6. Another x-ray was arranged to see if the cause of these problems could be found.

On examining the x-rays Dr Barnard decide he had a chest infect that was invading the lungs, perhaps a cold and/or cough, but until Louis produced some sputum and could grow some cultures they would not know how to treat this infection as they had no way of knowing what treatment was needed.

Sunday 17th December 1967 – Day 14
Yet another bad night for Louis and now the chest infection was affecting his breathing and he was refusing to eat his breakfast, although the nurses were telling him he must eat.
Dr Barnard went to see Louis to give him some support and strength, yet he found Louis was actually giving him that by his reply to how are you feeling Louis, he said “It hasn’t got either of us yet – not by a long shot”

Monday 18th December 1967 – Day 15
This morning Dr Barnard found that Louis had dramatically deteriorated, Louis was grasping for air in increasingly shallow drafts.
Dr Barnard and his team were still unsure how to treat Louis but in the end it was decided all his symptoms lead to rejection, so it was decided to treat Louis for that.
By the end of the day louis was looking much better and his temperature was also down to normal.

Tuesday 19th December 1967 – Day 16
This was a morning of two frightening episodes, Louise woke up in a mentally confused state, and incapable of coherent speech.
It was very quickly decided it was hypoglycemia – too little sugar in his blood and was corrected by giving him glucose.
The other which was far more worrying than lack of sugar in his blood was his white cell count. The morning blood sample had showed it was extremely low, the decision was that the new treatment was the cause and a different anti-rejection drug was used and they also increased his steroid prednisone.
Louis’s infection was still taken hold and the infection on his lungs was slowly getting worse.

Wednesday-Thursday 20th & 21st December – Day 17-18
The day began much the same as the rest of the week, meanwhile in the lab they had grown some cultures from the sputum they received from Louis yesterday. The growth showed bilateral pneumonia.
Louis was now quite ill but Dr Barnard told him to hang on in there as they now know what is wrong and are treating it. He said “Louis you must fight for us, just a bit longer – hold on you must hold on.” Louise managed a small smile but was very weak.
Dr Barnard also asked Ann, Louis’s wife to visit and encourage Louis to hang on and fight with them.
Ann spoke to Louis saying “You told me it was in the bag, remember – so now you remember it is in the bag.” Louis closed his eyes slowly “Louis please don’t……” He opened then again and slowly reached out for her hand as if he were lifting an enormous gift. “Thank you” she said and they both smiled.
As the day went on Louis’s condition worsen, and Dr Barnard was fearing the worst. He spoke to Ann saying “Louis kept his word, I am really sorry we didn’t keep ours.” Ann replied “Is he dead?” “No not yet.” replied Dr Barnard as he walked away.

6.30am sadly Louis Wankansky lost his fight for life, but thanks to him, Denise Darvall and her father agreeing to the transplant, Dr Christiaan Barnard and his complete team. The worlds first heart transplant was preformed and today I am just one of thousands that owe their life to them.

Ann Washkansky

Groote Schuur Hospital
South Africa
Where The Worlds First Heart Transplant was Preformed


This is Steven Tibbey my heart donor

7 days post heart transplant standing by my bed

“As you might imagine, my donor and his family have been in my thoughts daily.
Although I am eternally appreciative of my new lease of life, my gratitude has been overshadowed by my heartfelt sorrow for his family and their loss.
I have accepted my gift with great responsibility and with the hope that I can make a positive difference in someone else’s life like my donor has done for me.”

Transplants Save Lives

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