Reading Comprehension Worksheet: Dr. Chris Barnard and the First Heart Transplant

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The heart is a powerful symbol. We use it in language to convey many ideas. We talk about the most important part of a subject as the “heart of the matter”. Following the Bible, we talk about a “heart of stone”. If someone laughs in a very warm and sincere way, we describe that as “hearty”. This organ has a complicated relationship with language and culture. Similarly, the branch of medical science that deals with the heart, cardiology, is extremely complex. One of its great pioneers is the South African doctor, Christiaan Neethling Barnard.


Barnard came from South Africa’s arid Karoo region. He grew up in the town of Beaufort West, a small town nestled deep in the Karoo. It’s a place known for its rugged terrain, extreme climate and sheep farming. Life in this region has never been easy. One of the Barnard children died of a heart condition when he was only three years old. This is an interesting fact in light of the career Christiaan would go on to pursue.

An Illustrious Career

And what a career it was. After completing his medical studies and internship in Cape Town, Barnard began to work at first as a general practitioner before moving back to Cape Town to further his studies. It was during this period that his ingenuity really came to the fore. He developed a new and effective way to treat intestinal atresia. This is a condition that develops in utero. It creates gaps in the intestines that can prove fatal. Barnard’s new techniques began to save lives. On the strength of this work he won a scholarship that took him to Minnesota in the United States. It was there that he completed his Ph.D. and was exposed to cutting edge medical science. He even traveled to Russia to meet other luminaries of surgical science.

The Heart Transplant

After returning to his homeland, Barnard performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant. While others had attempted to transplant hearts, none of the patients had survived. Some had even attempted to transplant chimpanzee hearts into human patients. Barnard himself had conducted many experimental surgeries of this kind, using dogs as subjects. The complexity of the operation, and the difficulty of acquiring a willing donor, makes heart transplants difficult to achieve. But in 1967, Barnard had a patient and a donor. A young woman had been struck by a car and rendered brain dead. It was her heart that Barnard would use to give his diabetic patient a second chance at life. The surgery was a success and the world of cardiology changed forever.

Later Life

Despite his epoch-making professional success, Barnard’s personal life was troubled. Perhaps his success played a role in this. It’s not uncommon for people who scale the heights of human achievement to encounter difficulty when it comes to personal relationships. Whatever the case, Barnard never stopped working. He was never nominated for a Nobel Prize, but this is most likely because of international politics. For his part, Barnard thought of his country, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, as having been “more sinned against than sinning”. He passed away in 2001 while on vacation on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Cyprus.


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