Vassilios Avlonitis sits in a cramped basement workplace in St Thomas’ hospital in London. He could also be a distinguished cardiac surgeon, however within the cash-strapped NHS, he nonetheless has to share a tiny workspace. He is immaculately turned out, with a sort face and the type of palms I think about taking part in the piano. And it’s his palms that I can’t cease . The similar palms that picked up a radial noticed and lower via my breastbone. The similar palms – the one palms – which have actually touched my coronary heart. The palms that stripped veins from my leg and used them to replumb my damaged coronary heart. I’ve this man to thank for saving my life. And the cash-strapped NHS, after all.
It is 50 years since Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant operation. At the time, it was akin to placing a person on the moon. My operation was only a easy quadruple coronary heart bypass, not a transplant. The day after the terrorist attack at Borough market, I had a coronary heart assault. The group at St Thomas’ found that my coronary heart was nearly fully blocked up with gunk. And they fastened me. So now I’m overly conscious of all issues heart-shaped – each the sharp pink coronary heart form that will get tattooed on arms and printed on Valentine’s playing cards and the fist-sized muscly pump that propels blood round our our bodies.
That there are 2 very totally different hearts is attention-grabbing. One is the guts of medical science. The different is the guts of numerous poems and spiritual writings, the guts that may be a image of our emotional life, certainly, for some, an emblem of our very existence. Barnard’s pioneering operation was an necessary stage of their lengthy and complex divorce as a result of previous to this primary coronary heart transplant operation, it was the beating of our hearts that was extensively considered signifying our being alive. Death was the cessation of the heartbeat as a result of the guts was seen because the fountain of life. That is why the Japanese transplant surgeon Juro Wada, who carried out a coronary heart transplant in 1968, was charged with the intentional murder of the donor. The logic was clear: if the guts was nonetheless OK, then the donor should nonetheless have been alive when the guts was eliminated.
In this nation, the Daily Express led a marketing campaign in opposition to coronary heart transplants, stoking up worry that organs have been being harvested from those that may have been saved. The questions stored on coming. If the guts was certainly the supply of life, what did that imply for the identification of the recipient? And in apartheid South Africa, this anxiousness was given a racial dimension – significantly after Barnard’s 2nd operation, wherein a mixed-race man’s coronary heart was used to avoid wasting a white man. The Guardian commented, with bitter sarcasm: “There is no provision under the Group Areas Act for black hearts to beat in white areas.”
It was partly in response to a few of these points that we now we consider demise because the shutting down of part of our mind, with mind demise turning into the accepted medical definition of demise from the 70s onwards. Nevertheless, it was nonetheless extraordinarily disconcerting to listen to Mr Avlonitis inform me that, as part of the operation, he had stopped my coronary heart beating for the most effective a part of an hour. Medical science might have shifted our existential centre of gravity from the guts to the mind, however for an outdated sentimentalist corresponding to myself, the guts will all the time really feel just like the centre of my being.
It was a dialog with Rowan Williams, the previous archbishop of Canterbury, that helped me perceive why I nonetheless assume that. Imagine how peculiar it will be if scientific advance created a man-made alternative pump for the guts that pushes blood across the physique in a single steady circulate, with out a beat. This thought acquired us speaking about Shakespeare and his use of iambic pentameter. “But, soft! What light through yon-der win-dow breaks?” The rhythm – ber-bum, ber-bum, ber-bum, ber-bum, ber-bum – is the rhythm of our heartbeat. That is what makes Shakespeare’s poetry so ingressive, so affecting. It picks up on the earliest noise we hear, within the womb. And this rhythm accompanies us all through our lives. Rowan in contrast it to the tide coming out and in. It is a type of anchor, a hard and fast and steady reference on which we come to connect a way of self. This is the beat that monks and mystics have listened out for of their intervals of silent prayer, as if listening to that is to spend time intentionally aware of the constituent situations of being human. There could be one thing profoundly disorientating in having a man-made coronary heart that didn’t must beat out this fixed and uninterrupted tempo.
We have strayed a good distance from the calm and picked up Mr Avlonitis, who smiled weakly at my tendency in the direction of unique metaphysical speculations. He is a scientist. And his topic is a pump. “Doesn’t that make him just a glorified plumber?” I attempted to impress him, for dialog’s sake. “Hasn’t the brain taken centre-stage now?” And with that my thoughts was off, excited about how attention-grabbing it was that we’ve got turn out to be a much more rationally oriented tradition at across the similar time that the mind has turn out to be the preeminent organ within the human physique. But he was not provokable. No doubt it’s the high quality of imperturbability that makes him such an efficient surgeon. If he was a plumber, he was a plumber that has saved my life. Not simply that, however I really feel higher at the moment than I’ve for a terrific a few years. I’d say that I’m born once more. And I thank him, and all of the workers at St Thomas’, from the underside of my coronary heart.
Radio 4 will probably be marking 50 years because the first coronary heart transplant with a spread of programmes this week with Giles Fraser’s collection This Old Heart of Mine, Monday to Friday at 1.45pm. Visit bbc.co.uk/radio4