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December third marked the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking operation that catapulted Christiaan Barnard, M.D. to global fame.

INTEGRIS Recognizes 50th Anniversary of World’s First Human Heart Transplant (And the Oklahoma Connection)

The man who performed the first human to human heart transplant in the world has INTEGRIS ties. December third marked the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking operation that catapulted Christiaan Barnard, M.D. to global fame. Barnard was 45 years old in 1967 when he performed the revolutionary surgery in Cape Town, South Africa. The operation was a success and, even though the first recipient lived only eighteen days, the stage was set for heart transplantation as we know it today.

In the pioneering era of heart surgery, Barnard and Nazih Zuhdi, M.D. had been roommates while training together with the leading surgeons of the day at the University of Minnesota. They forged a lifelong friendship that would ultimately bring Barnard to Oklahoma City in 1984.

Rheumatoid arthritis forced Barnard out of the operating room but at Dr. Zuhdi’s urging, he came to Baptist Medical Center as it was called back then, to serve as scientist in residence. He would hold the research and lecture position at the hospital for a few years before returning to South Africa in 1987.

Although his stay here was brief, he was instrumental in helping to establish our state’s first transplant clinic, known at the time as the Oklahoma Transplant Center. He served alongside Dr. Zuhdi who was world-renowned in his own right, having pioneered practical methods with the use of heart-lung machines that allowed open-heart surgery to became possible on a scale never before imagined. In fact, Barnard had used Zuhdi’s technique when he performed the world’s first human heart transplant.

Needless to say, Dr. Barnard and Dr. Zuhdi were an incomparable pair. Together, they helped assemble the select group of cardiovascular surgeons that would perform the first human heart transplant ever in the state of Oklahoma. This mile-stone event took place in 1985 when only a handful of hospitals in the country had tried such a procedure.

After Barnard’s departure, Zuhdi would go on to conduct many other medical firsts; such as Oklahoma’s first piggyback or tandem heart transplant, Oklahoma’s first human heart-lung transplant and the state’s first single and then double lung transplants.

Those pioneering efforts laid the ground work for other surgeons performing Oklahoma firsts at Baptist Medical Center including our state’s first adult and pediatric liver transplants, many combined organ transplants and the implantation of innovative artificial heart pumps. In honor of Dr. Zuhdi’s many contributions, the institute was renamed the INTEGRIS Nazih Zuhdi Transplant Institute in 1999.  

The mere fact that Barnard played an integral role with Zuhdi in the transplant center’s early beginnings is a sense of pride for the Institute’s current pioneers, like James Long, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Nazih Zuhdi Transplant Institute and the INTEGRIS Advanced Cardiac Care program.

“It was my privilege to have met with Dr. Barnard in person and talked about that first-ever heart transplant. And, what an honor it has been to follow the encouragement of Dr. Zudhi in accepting the leadership of the Institute he founded.”

“As for all of us, we are indeed privileged and honored to walk in the footsteps of giants. And we are most fortunate that the same pioneering spirit which enabled the world’s first-ever human heart transplant 50 years ago is alive and well today in Oklahoma.”

“There are no limits to what can be achieved by the pioneers of today and tomorrow when driven by insatiable curiosity, boundless courage and relentless pursuit infused with healthy respect for humanity, tempered by humbling awe for the wondrous miracles through which are blessed.”

To date, nearly 600 patients suffering the ravages of terminal heart failure have been given a new lease on life with heart transplants performed at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center. Outcomes have been promising with one year survival rates nearing 92 percent (which is higher than the national average) and with some recipients living as long as 25 to 30 years post-transplant.

David Nelson, M.D., who is the chief of the Heart Transplant Medicine Division at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center, attributes much of INTEGRIS’ heart transplant success to trailblazers like Barnard and Zuhdi.

“Their philosophy was that in order to achieve great things, you must be willing to think outside the box. And I think that is very true especially in the medical field. You have to do it with the appropriate amount of science and respect behind it, but the next great discovery or possible cure can be one leap of faith away,” adds Nelson. “I think this way of thinking is not only part of our heritage, it’s part of our legacy. It’s the motivation or drive that will be carried on by future generations of INTEGRIS physicians.”