Celebrating 45 years of heart transplants

Growing up in Southern Africa in the 1960s, I recall that it wasn't too often that this part of the world featured in the global headlines, and when it did, it was usually for the wrong reason. But on 3rd December 1967, there was a wonderful headline-grabbing story that put South Africa on the map. It is now 45 years since the world's first heart transplant took place, performed by Dr Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

Such was the momentous nature of this event, that I can still recall the names of the first two recipients: Louis Washkansky, (who sadly only lived a further 18 days, although the operation was deemed successful) and Dr Philip Blaiberg, who lived for a further 19 months. Since then, hearts transplants have become commonplace all over the world, transforming the quality of life for thousands of people.

I read recently of one young man who developed cardiomyopathy (a weakening and hardening of the heart muscle), who received a new heart from a teenage car accident victim. He was subsequently quoted as saying "I think of my donor every day, and I want to show her family all that their gift has allowed me to do".

The Bible, of course, makes a spiritual parallel in diagnosing that we all have a kind of spiritual cardiomyopathy. Ephesians 4:18 speaks of how we are darkened in our understanding and separated from the life of God due to the hardening of our hearts. The Old Testament refers to that condition as a heart of stone, and the prophet Ezekiel concludes that the prognosis of that condition is that we are unable and unwilling to respond to God and, if left untreated, we end up spiritually dead.

But the Bible also uses the imagery of a heart transplant to heal and resolve this terminal condition. Ezekiel 36:26-27 quotes God as saying "I will give you a new heart…I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." The simple message is that without a new heart, we cannot be put right with God.

The approaching Christmas season is a reminder that Jesus did not come into our world in order to do some remedial surgery on our old heart. He came to provide us with a new one. And the heart that we get is His! He is the donor. He died so that we might have his heart.

I can remember some years ago hearing Professor Chris Barnard speaking on radio about his successes. He remarked with obvious satisfaction that some of his patients had lived a further ten years or more. He was thrilled to have saved a person's life for ten years. But the kind of life Jesus saves us for is eternal life. Amazingly, God offers a heart transplant to anyone willing to accept the gift, and with it comes eternal life.

Last month the BBC and a number of newspapers featured the thirtieth anniversary of Britain's longest surviving heart transplant patient. Mr John McCafferty is 70, and was joined by his surgeon Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub in a celebration at Harefield Hospital where he was operated on in October 1982. That is truly a cause for rejoicing.

Sadly, in the medical world, there remains a great shortage of hearts (and other organs) for transplanting, and because of this, many will die. But with Christ, new hearts are available to anyone who will confess their need and ask for Jesus Christ to give them so much more than Professors Barnard and Yacoub ever could. That is an even greater cause for rejoicing this Christmas.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.