Louise Washkansky was born in Lithuania and had migrated to South Africa as a boy. He served in the South African Army, and did his tour of duty in North Africa. He loved the sports, the outdoors, and was known for often having solutions to the most intractable problems. With Washkansky around, one was guaranteed chilled beer, even in the middle of a waterless desert. But his hard drinking and chain smoking habits had taken a toll, and Washkansky became a heart patient. It was Dr. Christiaan Barnard who bluntly told him he didn’t have much time. Washkanksy did not like this news one bit but kept quiet.
Hamilton Naki was a black South African who did not get beyond primary education, but he was a fast learner. He worked as a gardener, with the specific duty of rolling grass tennis courts. Naki was sincere and dedicated to his work which caught the attention of Dr. Robert Goetze of the University’s medical faculty, who operated upon animals. Naki was specially required to assist the doctor since he had steady hands and he could hold down large animals like giraffes and zebra even before they were anaesthetised. It was not long before the gardener caught the eye of Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who asked him to assist in a very different operation theatre.
The Darvalls lived in a small two-bedroom flat up a side street near Jan Van Riebeek High School in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. 25-year-old Denise Ann Darvall worked as a bank clerk and was the primary breadwinner in the family. She had recently been promoted, and, with the money she had saved, she had bought a Ford Anglia. The car quicky became her family’s prized possession. It was a little after 3.30 PM on Saturday, December 2, 1967. When Denise and her mother Myrtle were crossing the road, they were hit by a car driven by Frederick Prins. The impact killed Myrtle on the spot and flung Denise across the street where she landed on her head. Her skull was fractures. Denise and her mother were rushed to Groote Schur Hospital in Cape Town, where Myrtle was declared dead on arrival. Denise Darvall had no brain activity, but her heart was beating furiously, and she was transferred to ICU.
Dr. Christiaan Barnard was the cardiac surgeon attending to both Washkansky and Denise Darvall. After getting permission from Denise Darvalls father, Dr. Barnard started doing the unthinkable. He immediately assembled a 30-member team and made preparations for two heart surgeries in adjacent operation theatres. He headed them both. In one theatre, Darvall’s heart would be removed completely. In the next theatre, Washkansky’s heart would also be removed, but he would be connected to a heart-lung machine to keep the blood flowing.
In the operation theatre where Denise Darvall’s rib cage was being cut open and her heart taken out, Hamilton Naki was assisting. With those steady hands, he washed the heart and kept it ready for Christiaan Barnard to put it into Washkansky.
The operation was a success, but Washkansky lived only for eighteen days after the surgery. This one feat demonstrated that human-to-human heart transplant is possible and it catapulted Dr. Christiaan Barnard from obscurity into a household name. The world now knew who Dr. Christaan Barnard was because he dared. But the most crucial part of the story was that he was assisted by Hamilton Naki, a gardener with little formal education.