The Barnard brothers

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dr. daveOne pleasant Saturday afternoon in 1967, Ed Darvall took his wife, Myrtle, and 25 year old daughter, Denise, out for Saturday afternoon tea as he had done on many a sunny Saturday in Salt River. Little did they realize that, within hours, their names would be plastered on front pages of newspapers around the world. They would change medical history, though they would have preferred not to. Not to as not too far behind them was Frederick Prins, also out for a Saturday drive. Ed pulled over to the side of Main Road to let the girls out to buy some pastries at their favorite bakery across the road. Suddenly, in one of life’s most unfair cruelties, Ed was forced to watch in unimaginable horror as Mr. Prins’ vehicle struck both women, killing Myrtle instantly. Denise did not die on that South African road. She was rushed to Groote Shurr Hospital outside Capetown and placed on life support. By 9 o’clock that evening she was taken off as it appeared that all was lost. But all was not yet lost, not all.

Dr. Louis Washkansky had been through a tough battle. Louis, a 55 year old diabetic dentist had endured three heart attacks that had left his heart congested and failing. He had been lying and dying in the same hospital bed for over two months. His heart was incapable of maintaining normal output and his body was starving to death from lack of oxygen and fuel. He knew that all was lost. But not all, not yet. 

Marius and his brother Chris were doctors at Groote Shurr, intelligent and intrepid surgeons. They recognized that they could do something never done before and a medical marvel was about to unfold. By 3 a.m., Denise Darvall’s heart was still alive but now it was beating blood and life throughout the failing body of Louis Washkansky. Marius and Christian Barnard began that lazy weekend as regular run-of-the-mill, scalpel-tossing, nurse-cussing surgeons but when they walked out of that hospital after nine hours of performing one of the most famous surgeries in history, they were the most famous doctors on the planet. Up to that point there had been a few intra-species transplants i.e. pigs, baboons, lawyers ... but never humans.

One brother, Christian, continued on his flamboyant road of fame, dating Gina Lollabridgada, feted by royalty and Hollywood, marrying teenagers and models and being named United Nations Man of the Year and more importantly one of the world’s four greatest lovers. Put that on your gravestone!

The other brother was sitting with me in a pub. 

Marius Barnard went on to become one of the most acclaimed heart surgeons of his era, establishing an expertise operating on infants less than a month old using a technique that involved freezing the child and stopping its circulation before operating on it. He was unaware that Canadians had already pioneered that technique by simply living in Winnipeg where all circulation is generally stopped for the month of February. Caring deeply for his nation he became a Member of Parliament in the tumultuous 80s where he urged change for the better by fighting apartheid. 

Then one day another young woman in dire circumstances came into Marius’s life and once again he acted to change the world. A 34 year-old divorcee with two children had a cancerous lung removed by Dr Barnard, major surgery that normally requires major convalescence. Only three weeks later though she was forced to return to work, having to do so to pay for her children’s food, rent and education. Two years later she returned to Marius, coming to his office directly from work and “basically dying on her feet, exhausted, gasping for breath, the cancer ravaging her body. Why was she at work? She needed the money to provide for her children.” She died a few weeks later but Dr. Barnard could not bury her. “Wouldn’t it have been better if she had gotten the insurance money when she was diagnosed with cancer and not have to work until she basically was dead?” Distressed by her distress, he shared his thoughts with an insurance agency which took his compassionate idea and created Critical Illness, a staple of many insurance companies today. 

Two different heart surgeons with two very different hearts. One a man of passions, the other of compassions. One, one of the world’s greatest lovers, the other, one of the greatest lovers ... of the world. 

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