Jeff Prestridge 

What a happy coincidence

Jeff Prestridge

Jeff Prestridge

Last month I was privileged to be invited to a screening of a documentary about the world’s first heart transplant back in December 1967. The invite to watch Change of Heart, courtesy of insurer Scottish Widows, came just two days before a vote in the House of Commons paved the way for a change in the law over the donation of vital organs to save lives.

As a result of the impending legislation, triggered by a private members’ bill sponsored by MP Geoffrey Robinson, it will no longer be required for people to give prior consent for their vital organs to be used for the benefit of others in the event of their death. In future, consent will be presumed unless someone has opted out of an automatic donation scheme (think auto-enrolment and the requirement to opt out).

In introducing his bill, Mr Robinson said: “We have some of the lowest rates of consent for donation in western Europe, effectively preventing one-third of available organs from being used. On the current waiting list of 6,500, some 500 are, in effect, on a life sentence and will die in the next year without an organ becoming available.” 

When Mr Robinson’s Bill becomes law it will be known as Max’s Law, after 10-year-old boy Max Johnson who received the heart of nine-year-old Keira Ball after she died last year in a car crash on the North Devon Link Road.

The move has been welcomed by charity the British Heart Foundation (BHF). John Maingay, director of policy and public affairs, says the move towards a presumed consent system “will better reflect the views of the majority of people and give hope to those who urgently need an organ”.

He adds: “There is a desperate shortage of organs in the UK and the BHF is keen to work with the government to help deliver a presumed consent system, which will help save lives.” Such an opt-out system has been running in Wales since December 2015.

Opt-out scheme

It will probably not surprise you to learn that representatives of the BHF were present at the screening of Change of Heart. The issue of an opt-out donation scheme was also raised in questions after the film’s showing.

The documentary, less than an hour long, is required viewing for all sorts of reasons. It acknowledges a key landmark in the advancement of medical surgery – not just in the field of transplants, but in post-surgery intensive care as well. It also shines much-needed reflective light on a monumental moment of medical history and acknowledges that the first heart transplant was not just a one-man success story (Dr Christiaan Barnard). Others also played key roles in ensuring the first successful human heart transplant although the recipient, Louis Washkansky, only lived another 18 days before succumbing to pneumonia.

No one was more important than Christiaan’s brother Dr Marius Barnard, who was part of the operating team at the Groote Schuur Hospital, in Cape Town, South Africa. Unlike Christiaan, who was vain and craved the limelight, Marius preferred to keep himself in the shadows. 

Indeed, looking back (both of the Barnards are now no longer with us), you would probably judge Marius to be the more successful of the two brothers. While Christiaan stumbled from marriage to marriage and resorted to promoting anti-ageing cosmetics in later life, Marius made his name in other fields. As a  member of the Progressive Federal Party, he was a key figure in persuading South African president FW de Klerk to free Nelson Mandela. He was also the pioneer of dread disease cover.