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Program Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Pioneering Surgery

Fifty years ago, Christiaan Barnard, MD, performed the first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. Last week, two members of the team that assisted Barnard joined members of Cedars-Sinai's heart transplant team to celebrate the anniversary and the advances that have come in the intervening years.

Hosted by Jon A. Kobashigawa, MD, the DSL/Thomas D. Gordon Chair in Heart Transplantation Medicine, and Leon Fine, MD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine and director of the Program in the History of Medicine, the celebration drew a crowd of about 160 filled Harvey Morse Auditorium on Feb. 26.

Warwick Peacock, MD, a professor of surgery at UCLA, and Desmond Shapiro, MD, a nephrologist with St. Joseph Health in Santa Rosa, were junior members of Barnard's team at the groundbreaking surgery in December 1967. Peacock told the audience of his mentor's travels across the U. S. as he sought to learn about transplantation; Shapiro spoke of the challenges of practicing medicine in an environment with "First World skills and a Third World patient population."

The recipient of the first transplanted heart, Louis Washkansky, lived just 18 days after the operation, but subsequent patients survived far longer. The fifth, Peacock said, lived a dozen years after the surgery, the sixth lived another 23 years.

Alfredo Trento, MD, professor and director of the Division of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery, performed the first heart transplant at Cedars-Sinai in 1988. The patient, a 65-year-old woman named Laurel Labash, asked Trento how much more time the operation would allow her. When Trento told her there was a good chance she would live another five years, Labash responded, "I'll make you a wager: I'll live another 20 years." She exceeded both their expectations, dying in 2011.

Since the trailblazing surgery on Labash, another 1,328 patients have had heart transplants at Cedars-Sinai.

"Heart transplantation has come a long way over these 50 years," said Kobashigawa. "We now have markedly improved survival and a return to an excellent quality of life. Cedars-Sinai has been the largest such program in the country over the past five years, performing more than 100 heart transplant surgeries annually. Our one-year survival rate of greater than 91 percent exceeds government expectations. This is truly a reflection of our gifted surgeons and outstanding care provided by the OR, hospital and clinic staffs."

Other speakers at the event included Lawrence Czer, MD, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program; Farad Esmailian, MD, surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program; and Kelly Perkins, a transplant recipient and co-founder of the Moving Hearts Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness around organ, tissue and blood donation issues.

Stressing the value of transplantation, Perkins, an avid climber and mountaineer who got her new heart in 1995, said, "I'm not what I used to be, but I am doing what I used to do."