Celebrating 40 Years Since Israel's First Heart Transplant

Dana Weiler-Polak
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Dana Weiler-Polak

The pink, heart-shaped cake decorated with 40 lit candles, the plethora of red, heart-shaped helium balloons and the members of the team that carried out the first heart transplant in Israel at Petah Tikva's Beilinson Hospital illustrate what "historic moment" occurred here 40 years ago. Although the operation was successful, the transplant patient died. His death had long-term consequences - the next transplant took place some 20 years after that formative moment.

"We didn't have much then apart from a strong desire to advance and help people," says Professor Bernardo Vidne, who 40 years ago served as the assistant to the late Professor Morris Levy and today is a cardiothoracic surgeon. "We were also self-critical and had the desire to learn from our mistakes. I see the transplant of 1968 as a step forward in the direction of where we are today."

Last week, members of the original operating team attended the event marking the 40th anniversary of the first heart transplant in Israel. Among the invitees were Professor Vidne; Dr. Errol Levy, who was head of the anesthesia department at the time; Professor Jacques Solomon, who harvested the first heart from the donor's body; Shosh Levy, at the time an operating room nurse and the current director of the heart-lung transplant unit; and Dr. Benjamin Medallion.

"One day Professor Levy came up to me and said, really casually, 'Prepare the patient for a heart transplant,' as though this were an entirely routine procedure," Shosh Levy recalls, "and I immediately said, 'What?! How do we do that?' And in his unflappable manner he replied: 'Do what we normally do, but in the other room prepare a bowl of ice for the intended heart.'"

Despite her extensive medical experience, Levy was excited and began implementing the required measures - acts that have etched themselves into her memory. "When he removed the sick heart and placed it on the table, I just couldn't look at it. I immediately covered it with a cloth. Another scene that both astonished and scared me was the sight of the empty chest cavity of the patient waiting for the transplant. That was an extraordinary sight - something we hadn't seen until then."

The team was very tense and only once it was all over, when they saw the heart beating in the transplant patient's body, did they allow themselves to digest what had happened. "We allowed ourselves to smile - we were in seventh heaven. No one went home. We gathered in the patient's room and discussed the procedure."

Most of the changes in transplant operations since then have occurred mainly in the field of medications to prevent the transplanted organ from being rejected. "The surgical technique has hardly changed at all," explains Professor Vidne. "Today's innovations mainly relate to the field of monitoring. There are new tools as well, and we do a biopsy of the heart during the initial months following the transplant. We expect treatment against transplant rejection to develop further and hope we will eventually be able to transplant animal hearts and even use artificial hearts, a practice that has increasingly been implemented in recent years. We will also be able to culture heart cells to produce the organ itself, which will allow us to help those candidates on the waiting list."

To the question of whether these are dreams, Vidne replies: "If we don't dream, we won't get anywhere."