Semicentennial celebration of a medical milestone

HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Chris Barnard made headlines around the world.

It was 50 years ago that South Africa was put on the map by a medical achievement the world had never seen before. On 3 December 1967, South African doctor, Professor Christiaan Barnard, performed the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

The history of this epic operation is being brought to life by DS Films Entertainment and Karoo Films. It will be released on 3 December 2017 to mark the semicentennial day. It will be filmed where history was made at the Groote Schuur Hospital. The nine hour long operation took place inside the Charles Saint Theatre, and the surgery has become known as the breakthrough that pushed the boundaries of medical science into a new era.

Inside this very theatre re-enactments will be carried out for the documentary, and these scenes will be used alongside archive material and modern day footage of the landmarks of Barnard’s life. The filmmakers will also be filming in Barnard’s home town of Beaufort West, and at the Christiaan Barnard Museum. Furthermore at the University of Minnesota in the US and in Rome, Italy.

Filming began on 1 February 2017 and will continue until 30 April 2017. The documentary will be released in 4K digital. The documentary is directed by Byron Davies, with cinematographer William Collinson and produced by Robert dos Santos and Bonita Koff.

“The documentary is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the world’s first human to human transplant performed right here in South Africa,” says co-producer Robert dos Santos. “The concept of the documentary is to highlight the long journey to the first heart transplant and pay homage to the persons who made it a reality. This comprises of the extraordinary Professor Christiaan Barnard, his incredible support team of various races and religions, including the famed Hamilton Naki, and the institutions which enabled him to achieve these feats.”

He further explains that the focus and narrative will be carried forward through the use of interviews of those who knew him before, during and after the operation. It will feature those who worked alongside him, friends and family, members of Groote Schuur and UCT where he applied his trade, and include historians, and leading experts in the fields of cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery from around the world.

Driven by a group of people who are passionate about Barnard, dos Santos says they would like to do justice to his legacy while paying homage to his multi-racial staff, the initial heart donor Denise Darvall, and the initial heart recipient Louis Washkansky.

Washkansky was a fifty-three year old grocer with a debilitating heart condition. He received the heart of Darvall, a young woman who was run over by a car on 2 December and had been declared brain dead.

This momentous achievement introduced to the world another significant way to prolong life. Barnard is similarly credited with developing a new design for artificial heart valves, doing heart transplants on animals, and correcting a problem of the blood supply to the foetus during pregnancy. Barnard passed away at 78 in Cyprus on 2 September 2001.

The Heart of Cape Town Museum, set up by the Groote Schuur Hospital honours those who played a leading role in the surgical feat. Theatres A and B are the original theatres and have been recreated to display an authentic representation of the ground breaking operation.

“We are all incredibly proud to be a part of this production and hope to be able to celebrate a world first which was made possible not only through the tenacity of Professor Barnard but also through the assistance of his incredible staff of various ethnicities at a time in which the South African government attempted to keep people of various races apart,” says dos Santos. Adding that “We are all well aware of the importance of this documentary in both a South African and international perspective. We feel a great sense of pride and duty to do justice to a man and story which set the eyes of the world upon South Africa.”

That one operation 50 years ago is now performed worldwide more than 5 000 times a year. At any given time, there are more than 3 000 people waiting for a heart transplant and it is estimated that up to 50 000 people are candidates for transplantation.

Therefore the filmmakers would like to change the perceptions of organ donation and bring to light the importance of it, as without an organ donor it would not be possible to have achieved the first heart transplant. “The idea of organ donation is seen by many as a taboo subject, and we hope our documentary will do much to educate people on the significance of signing up as an organ donor,” says dos Santos.

He concludes that “We are highly supportive of organ donation and aim to inspire more people to sign up as organ donors. Becoming a donor is easy, all you need to do is to register on the Organ Donor Foundation’s website: or to phone them at 0800 22 66 11.”

As much as one surgery can hold considerable significance, one organ donor can shape many lives.

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Cera-Jane Catton
Cera-Jane Catton is a writer and journalist with years of experience in community newspapers, blogging and freelance journalism. She has worked in a cache of capacities, often finding herself behind or in front of the cameras, intentionally and less so. She has been a stunt double in two Bollywood movies, has worked in various capacities on a number of natural history documentaries, and other international productions shot in South Africa. Cera is a former Screen Africa journalist.


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