Memories of a human heart

It’s an ordinary page, from an ordinary diary. “Dates that matter”, printed in the top right corner. Important dates for January in an unnamed year.
Dates that never needed filling in. There’s also space for notes, but the lines are blank. The owner of this diary didn’t care for the prescriptions of its publisher. Her hand, probably inspired by the same wistful romance in her favourite Barbara Cartland novels, gave the page over to a ballgown, scrawled in a scarlet pencil.

Square neck, broad straps and deep pockets angled over the hips. Black trim here and there. Eleven neatly spaced buttons down the front. An exaggerated clinch in the waist.

Denise Darvall was a regular 20-something when she sketched that dress, an everyday bank employee, a woman hoping for love and a chance to wear a ballgown.

Until a drunk driver smashed into her and her mother, Myrtle, while they were crossing Main Road, Salt River, on December 2 1967. She was flung into a stationary car with such force that her skull buckled. She was brain dead by the time she arrived at Groote Schuur Hospital.

This is a snapshot of the woman who became the unintended heroine of South Africa’s most remarkable medical drama—the world’s first successful human heart transplant performed by Professor Chris Barnard and now remembered in the Heart of Cape Town Museum in that same hospital.

The drama of the all-night surgery, following the accident, has been recreated with chilling accuracy. In Theatre B2, the very same donor theatre, a scrubbed-up medical team huddles over the model of Denise as they chase the clock. Two doors down, in Theatre A, lies a recreation of the terminally ill Louis Washkansky, anaesthetised and ready to receive a new heart.

Museum owner and curator Hennie Joubert spent six years planning and compiling the contents of the museum, which opened its doors last December on the 40th anniversary of the surgery. It’s all there: inside the animal house where transplants were first perfected on dogs, the story of Barnard’s assistant Hamilton Naki, medical records or photos of the first 100 successful transplant recipients, press shots of the world-famous surgeon meeting the Pope, Sophia Loren, Princess Diana, the awards, letters from kids who loved him, colleagues who admired him and detractors who were revolted by the “ghoulishness” of organ transplants.

Joubert’s obsessive eye for detail went as far as to bring in members of the original medical team to arrange the surgical instruments accurately in the recreated scene, just as they would have done on that night.

What makes this museum so vivid is that the heart surgeon is still alive in the South African memory. But he’s not a man who has been remembered adequately by his country, argues Joubert, whose father Erhardt studied with Barnard and together they ran a small practice in Ceres before Barnard moved to Groote Schuur and on to bigger things.

The museum—small, intimate and in the very spot where it all took place—remembers the man, the remarkable history of heart transplant surgery and the woman who lost hers so it could all happen.

It’s fitting that Denise should get a room of her own, just metres from the very operating theatre where her heart was lifted from her chest just hours after the accident. Two beds, one doll. Her reading glasses resting on an open romance novel. A record collection: Joan Sutherland, Love Duets by Joan Hammond and Charles Craig. Her ballgown sketches, now framed, on one wall.

A postcard, post-marked 1960-something: “Dear Mom, This is just to tell you that we are leaving Jo’burg on Sunday by the 3.15pm plane — I will phone you Saturday evening — Love to everybody. See you soon. Denny. xxx.”

After her death, at exactly 5.58am on December 3, Denise Darvall’s heart started beating again. Only this time it was in someone else’s chest. And it did so for another 18 days until recipient Louis Washkansky died of pneumonia. So much drama in such a small space in this little museum on Hospital Bend.

Leonie Joubert is the author of Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate, published by Wits University Press. She is not related to Hennie Joubert, owner and curator of the museum

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