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How Stanford jump started heart transplant surgery 50 years ago

Jan. 6, 1968 marks the 50-year anniversary of the first human heart transplant in the United States, which happened here at Stanford.

Ten years of painstaking research came to a head in a Stanford Hospital operating room fifty years ago this week. On Jan. 6, 1968, the first adult heart transplant in the United States was successfully completed by pioneering heart surgeon Norman Shumway, MD, PhD, and his colleagues.

The article I wrote on the 50th anniversary of this landmark surgery describes the extraordinary events of that day -- and of the 15 days post-transplant that the patient survived. It's the story of a procedure that triggered the "transplant revolution" and ultimately led to the success of heart transplant surgery today.

As I explain in my piece, the tale of that historic surgery was first told to the entire world five decades ago by a frenzied press camped out in the basement of the hospital and literally climbing hospital walls that day.

"I just remember thinking the future was going to be different if they can transplant a heart," Tom Brokaw, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News for 22 years, told me in an interview for the article. On that day, he was one of the young reporters in the basement of the hospital, waiting to hear whether the newly transplanted donor heart would beat again.

Edward Stinson, MD, the chief surgical resident and Shumway's right hand man, now retired, paused several times when I interviewed him in his Los Altos home for the article, shaking his head and smiling as he reminisced.

As he described to me, Stinson first dissected the donor heart from Virginia-Mae White, a 43-year-old housewife from Mountain View. Then he carried the heart in a basin to the room next door where Shumway and the patient, Mike Kasperak, a 54-year-old retired steel worker from East Palo Alto, were waiting. Shumway had removed Kasperak's heart. Now it was time to stitch in the new heart.

Stinson, a longtime member of the Stanford faculty, recalled the moment just prior to placing White's heart into Kasperak's open chest with particular awe. "We both stood there and stared into this huge, empty cavity for a good half a minute," Stinson said. "It was a magical moment."

The next morning Shumway, and the chief cardiologist, Donald Harrison, MD, appeared at an impromptu press conference held in one of the medical school's amphitheater before a crowd of several hundred members of the press, Brokaw among them. Shumway spoke first: "We have reached first base, so to speak, but our work is just beginning. The heart transplant patient, Mike Kasperak, awakened in satisfactory condition."

The story didn't end with the surgery that day, of course. It just got bigger. A rush around the world to perform heart transplant surgeries following the Shumway transplant led to frighteningly high mortality rates, and a call for a moratorium by 1970. Stanford ignored the moratorium and continued on with heart transplant research and surgeries -- with the decade of research prior to the first transplant making Stanford uniquely able to develop a successful surgery in the following decade. As I wrote in my piece:

Today, Stanford's reputation is cemented as the research center responsible for leading to the thousands of successful transplants carried out annually around the world. But that first surgery remains a magical moment, for Stinson at least, and an essential one, along the journey toward making heart transplantation a standard operation.

Previously: Thirty-five years later Stanford surgeon Bruce Reitz recalls first successful heart-lung transplant, After heart transplant who survives: new study offers tools to tell and A heartfelt story about a young aspiring doc and a famous cardiologist
Photo courtesy of Stanford Medical History Center

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