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Louis Washkansky – the man with the miracle heart

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TALI FEINBERG

“It was extremely brave of him to go ahead with the transplant,” says Barry Washkansky, whose father was Louis’ second cousin. Barry grew up hearing about how his famous relative was always optimistic before and after the operation. “It was groundbreaking… there is only ever one first,” says Barry.

“He loved life. He knew he was dying but he still had an incredible sense of humour,” adds Amanda Washkansky, Louis’ daughter-in-law. She was married to his adopted son Michael, who himself has faced challenges throughout his life. Michael was only a teenager when his dad died. For Ann Washkansky and Michael, it was a very painful loss. 

Amanda’s son Dale (Louis’ grandson), says that the transplant wasn’t discussed much as he was growing up, possibly because the loss was still painful for Ann and Michael to mention. “He put his life in Barnard’s hands and had such courage in the face of uncertain odds,” adds Dale.

In this context, Amanda feels that Louis’ role in the medical drama has largely been forgotten. “At the celebrations on Saturday night at Groote Schuur, his name wasn’t mentioned once,” she says.

She thinks that perhaps it is time for him to be remembered in his own right, as a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania (he came to this country from Kovno at the age of nine with his family). He was a sportsman who loved swimming, soccer and wrestling and was a soldier who served during the Second World War in North Africa and Italy.

He was also a loving husband to Ann (née Sklar) and father to Michael. “Michael had a very good, close bond with his dad,” adds Amanda.

Washkansky’s active lifestyle came to an abrupt end with the first of three heart attacks in December 1960, and he became diabetic. He was admitted to Groote Schuur a number of times, including on September 14, 1967, which was Rosh Hashanah. By then, only one third of his heart was still functioning. He went into a diabetic coma, but regained consciousness.

By late 1967, Washkansky’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he was near death. Barnard determined that he was a good candidate to be the first human to undergo the procedure, and when the idea was proposed to Washkansky, he accepted immediately. As the press wrote at the time, “the courage of Louis Washkansky made medical history”.

Another largely unknown hero in this story is the donor – 25-year-old Denise Darvall. She and her mother Myrtle had been struck by a drunk driver while crossing a busy street on a Saturday afternoon. A doctor, Louis Ehrlich, who had just been to a barmitzvah, was at the scene and confirmed that Denise had suffered a compound skull fracture but she was still alive.

Myrtle died at the scene. Denise was taken to Groote Schuur, where her brain had no sign of electrical activity. A blood transfusion and respirator maintained the beat of her heart.

Doctors approached Denise’s father Edward Darvall and asked for permission to use her heart for a possible transplant, explaining to him that there was a man in the hospital who was desperately ill. Darvall took just four minutes to reach his decision – he told the doctors that if they could not save his daughter, they must try to save this man.

And so, the five-hour transplant operation, carried out by a team of 30 led by Barnard, began at one o’ clock in the morning of December 3. Despite the odds, all went well, and five hours later, Barnard applied an electrical current to the transplanted heart and it began to beat within Washkansky’s body.

“We were the first in the world to know,” recalls Lily Cammerman, who was a close friend of the family and had stayed at the hospital all night with Ann and Michael. She was with them at their home when they got the call at 06:05 that the heart was beating.

“There couldn’t have been a better person to have the transplant,” she adds, explaining that Louis took the media attention completely in his stride, cracking jokes and staying positive the entire time. Whenever Cammerman visited, the media would beg her to take a photograph, saying they would pay her whatever she wanted.

Washkansky reacted well initially, and he was in good spirits. But he soon began to decline when his doctors made the fatal mistake of believing that Washkansky’s body had rejected his new heart.

They pumped him full of anti-rejection medication – failing to realise that Washkansky had developed an unrelated case of pneumonia, which he then could no longer fight because of the new medication.

Louis Washkansky died on December 12, 18 days after the transplant. He was buried at Pinelands Cemetery by Rabbi Israel Abrahams the next day. “His headstone is one of the tallest in the cemetery,” recall Cammerman. 

“It should be known that the first successful heart transplant patient was Jewish,” she adds. “He was a wonderful and generous man who helped many people. I’m honoured that I knew him.”

“He is a person who we as the Jewish community can be proud of,” adds Amanda Washkansky. “He’s part of our history. If it wasn’t for Louis, things could have turned out very differently. Let’s not forget him.” 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Renae Stone

    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    ‘He was my Uncle. His Wife Ann was my mothers sister and Solly Sklar was their brother.’

  2. David S. Berman

    Jan 7, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    ‘Louis was my maternal grandfather Tevia’s brother, and my maternal grandmother Annie’s first cousin. I was three when Louis had the heart transplant and cherish a photo I have, taken at D.F. Malan Airport in 1965, of my brother and I with my our grandfather Tevia and his brother Louis. Louis’s widow Anne and son Michael were frequent guests in my grandparents and parents homes, and I remember them well. Louis was indeed very brave and deserves to be remembered with respect and gratitude. His contribution to the advancement of medicine should be honoured at the South African Jewish Museum and at Beit Hatefusot. May His Memory be Blessed – יהיה זכרו ברוך. David S. Berman (son of Jack & Hetty nee Washkansky, of Blessed Memory), Elazar, Gush Etzion, Israel’

  3. Esther Strauss

    Jan 10, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    ‘Louis Washkansky was my mother’s younger brother. Her name was Leah Zuckerman [nee Washkansky], and he was my uncle.  He had a wonderful sense of humour and when I visited him at Groote  Schuur Hospital and asked how he was feeling, he replied "I’m fine", although he certainly wasn’t.  He was always cheerful and kind hearted.  After the surgery he said that Dr. Christiaan Barnard has "Goldena Hent".’

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