BBC Radio 4:Rev Professor David Wilkinson - 04/12/2017


Good morning. Yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant is a reminder of the way it captured the public imagination, made Christiaan Barnard a medical celebrity and raised some continuing issues of how science interacts with ethics and everyday life.

The heart transplanted into Louis Washkansky came from Denise Darvall, who with her mother had suffered a fatal car accident. In the pain of the loss of both his wife and daughter, it took only a few minutes for Edward Darvall to compassionately agree to the donation of her heart.

The success of the transplant did raise difficult medical questions such as defining death in the case of a brain dead donor. But there were wider questions reflecting the way that the heart was endowed with more qualities than just the body’s blood pump. Mrs Washkansky in thinking about a new heart in her husband admitted, ‘I was petrified at what I’d find. Like everyone else, I thought the heart controls your emotions and personality’.

The Judaeo Christian tradition which shaped Western culture uses the language of the heart to speak about the very core of a person. Thus Jesus said, ‘A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things…..For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of’. The heart as the seat of love and other emotions is therefore deeply embedded in art, literature and music.

It is important to understand these complementary views of desCRIbing what it means to be human. Misunderstanding, Malcolm Muggeridge referred to heart transplantation as ‘the final degradation of our Christian way of life.’ In contrast, when Christiaan Barnard just two months after the transplant visited Rome, Pope Paul VI assured him of his prayers for the success of the transplant operations.

Later this week on Radio 4, Professor Stephen Westaby will point out that soon heart transplants will be superseded by stem cell therapy and artificial hearts. As a Christian I thank God for the achievements and this potential of medicine. But to be human is more than just the sum of organs. It is to recognise the ambiguity of both good and evil at the core of my being and how I need a greater power to change this. As the current Pope Francis has said, ‘The revolutions of history have changed political and economic systems but none have really changed the human heart.’

And a heart changed to love more and show compassion, will encourage me among many other things to be on the organ donor register and support breakthrough advances in science.

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