At Milwaukee County General Hospital School of Nursing, in late 1968, my classmates and I were thrilled to be invited to a presentation in the hospital auditorium.
We entered along with doctors, nurses and other students from all areas of the hospital. The room was absolutely buzzing with anticipation as we waited for the event to begin.
During my time at County, many exciting things were happening in medicine. One of the most exciting, I think, was the transplantation of human hearts, something that had been hoped for but seemed almost unimaginable just a few years earlier.
In 1967, the first human heart transplant was performed by a South African doctor, Christiaan Barnard. Just 10 months later, a successful heart transplant was performed in Milwaukee at St. Luke’s Hospital by Dr. Derward Lepley, Jr.
In the auditorium, our excitement built as Dr. Lepley and his surgical team appeared and narrated a film of the heart transplant. We watched in awe, fascinated to hear Dr. Lepley describe what was happening during the procedure and see the inert, transplanted heart begin to beat after it was placed in the patient’s chest. The film ended, and we began to applaud as the lights came up.
It was then that Dr. Lepley introduced his patient. The 49-year old woman with the new heart stepped onto the stage. An incredible, uplifting wave of emotion swept through the auditorium as every person rose to give Dr. Lepley and Betty Anick an ovation.
At that moment, in my 18 year-old heart, I felt I was in a world where anything and everything was entirely possible.
Although Betty lived for 9 years after her transplant, most transplants were not as successful until the 1980’s when immunosuppressant drugs were developed. Today, heart transplants are fairly routine procedures with optimal results.
Not too long ago, a local museum had a display supporting organ transplant on a day I happened to visit, and several transplant patients were there to talk about their experiences.
I spoke to a man who had recently received a heart, and tried to express to him how it felt to see Betty Anick on that long ago day.
He got it. We shared a spontaneous hug at the end of our conversation, as I wished him well.