Fifty years ago Sunday, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African surgeon, lifted a human heart out of the chest of a young bank worker who had died in a car crash and installed it in a 55-year-old grocer who was near death.
The prognosis for Louis Washkansky, the world's first heart transplant recipient? Doctors had no clue. "The longer Washkansky goes on, the better," said a doctor who announced the Dec. 3, 1967, feat. "Although that does not mean the heart will not be rejected later. The body could decide in five or 10 years that it doesn't want this heart."
Washkansky's new heart lasted 18 days.
It would take another 16 years before the development of powerful anti-rejection medications helped boost the survival odds. By the time Barnard died in 2001, three-quarters of heart transplant patients survived five years or more, a figure that now approaches an amazing 80 percent.
We mark this moment not only to marvel at Barnard's surgical skill and daring, but to note how the replacement of the human pump changed public perceptions about disease and death. Transplant doctors didn't start with the heart, but with kidneys.
The first successful kidney transplant happened in 1954. The pancreas/kidney transplant in 1966. And the first successful liver transplant, in 1967. The first successful single lung transplant came much later, in 1983.
We live in the wonderful era of spare parts and of the medical know-how to install them.
A bad liver? A malfunctioning kidney? A failing ticker? Lungs? Pancreas? All can be replaced, if a proper donor is found, and if the patient survives long enough. (Which is not a license to abuse those parts; there's a long list for transplantable organs, remember, including more than 3,900 people waiting for hearts. Are you a committed organ donor in waiting? If not, do so.)
Doctors continue to push transplant frontiers. A full face transplant. A penis transplant. An Italian doctor promises that the first human head transplant is "imminent." Hmm. We'll see about that one.
The future of transplants may not even involve human or animal parts, but cybernetic parts. Technologically enhanced beings are staples of science fiction (Star Trek's Borg, Marvel's Wolverine, "Ghost in the Shell," "The Six Million Dollar Man" and many more.)
In the real world, research on cyber-enhancements is vital because there's always a shortage of human organs for transplantation.
Last year we wrote about scientists who implanted a chip in a paralyzed monkey's brain that sends wireless signals through a computer to electrodes in its lower back. The thrilling result? The monkey walks, haltingly. Such miniaturized wearable computer technology eventually could help paralyzed people move.
Scientists also are working on other breakthroughs: A completely internal artificial heart that could last decades. Implantable systems could help the blind see. An implantable chip may one day help people with severe memory loss from Alzheimer's, stroke or brain injury.
Plenty of movies predict entire human minds downloaded and transplanted into android frames _ the promise of near-immortality. We think the human body, that magnificent machine, will never grow obsolete. But as science fiction turns into science fact, we imagine the revolution pioneered by Christiaan Barnard and his contemporaries will yield ever greater wonders.
The above article appeared in the Chicago Tribune. It is distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.