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Christian Barnard - the other side

Pioneering heart transplant surgeon Chris Barnard made his name through his work at Groote Schuur Hospital, but later "literally turned his back" on the hospital's department of cardio-thoracic surgery.

This is the hard-hitting view of Professor Johan Brink, head of clinical services at the department at Groote Schuur and the University of Cape Town, and head of Groote Schuur's heart transplant programme, in a major biography of Barnard called Celebrity Surgeon, published by Jonathan Ball in Cape Town today.

The book, by British journalist Chris Logan, draws on interviews with more than 100 people, including Barnard's third wife, Karin Setzkorn, and portrays the surgeon as a philanderer, playboy, big-talker, unofficial ambassador for South Africa during the time of the Information Scandal, freeloader and tightwad. He could also be ruthless and cruel to his wives, and to his older children.

But he was also a talented surgeon and medical pioneer who, said Brink in a tribute when Barnard died, had "done more for medicine in South African than any other person ... He put us on the world map".

More sharply, however, Brink, who has performed nearly 200 heart transplants at Groote Schuur, says in the book: "He could have done a tremendous amount more to build our department up to being a great cardiac centre - firstly while still in our department, and particularly over the almost 20 years after he retired.

"There was no support, not only financially but more importantly politically or influentially, for our department after he retired - he literally turned his back on us.

"However, I do believe that his name can and should be used to help academic medicine, cardiovascular medicine in particular - in our university and hospital, which are going through terrible times during the restructuring of our country in the post-apartheid era.

"Government support for high-cost medicine such as cardiology and cardiac surgery has plummeted, and we are really struggling to maintain the highest standards because of this.

"During Barnard's time he had a very good infrastructure by international standards, and a high level of competence and support in all fields of medicine at Groote Schuur and UCT on which he could build his career successes.

"Hopefully his name will be able to 'pay back' some of this success to cardiovascular medicine at Groote Schuur and UCT."


A new Christiaan Barnard Institute of Cardiovascular Medicine is being set up at UCT, and the university has also renamed a research centre after Barnard.

Logan comments: "Many of his former colleagues say he could have done more during his life to create a permanent medical legacy.

"They felt then and feel now that it was an opportunity tragically missed in the vortex of glamour, fame and global travel that swallowed Barnard after the first heart transplant."
Other revelations in the book include:


He and fellow members of the first heart transplant team left it until they had first heart donor Denise Darvall lying in the theatre in front of them before debating at what point she could be regarded as dead.


Barnard was always attracted by pretty women, and was cheating on first wife Louwtjie with nurses while researching tuberculosis at the City Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Green Point, long before he got involved in heart medicine.


At the time of Barnard's death at 78 he had a close friendship with a 28-year-old blonde Viennese medical student called Gudi Heidler. The shared a bed, but Gudi says they never had sex. Gudi also told Logan: "You never knew when he was telling the truth because he lied a lot. He called them 'white lies' and I forgave him because he was old."


The "piggy-back" transplant technique, in which surgeons leave the patient's own heart in place so it can be helped by the new heart, was inspired by a remark of Barnard's son Andre, also a doctor. Martin Franzot, a friend of Barnard's and a second father to Andre, died on the operating table during a heart transplant performed by Barnard. A weeping Andre, waiting outside the theatre, demanded to know why Barnard had removed a heart that had been at least keeping Franzot alive.


Princess Diana, who met Barnard in 1996, wrote to him to say she had fallen in love with a heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, and wanted to marry him. Khan had told her he could not cope with the media attention they would have to endure in Britain, so she asked Barnard if he could organise a job for Khan in Cape Town. Barnard spoke to people at Groote Schuur and elsewhere, but found hospitals were cutting back, not hiring.

Full Credit For This Story Goes To: Cape Argos

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