Growing up, Candice Govender had found it difficult to believe that a heart could be removed from one person’s chest and placed in another’s, as Dr Chris Barnard and his team had done when they performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.
But all that changed when her father, Bobby Govender, was given a new lease on life after having received a heart from a Good Samaritan in 2001.
Bobby suffered his first heart attack in his 30s.
“He suffered two heart attacks in one week.”
Candice can vividly recall the day she woke up to find that her father was not at home and had been rushed to hospital the night before.
“I could not understand the magnitude of what was happening. All I remember is that he suffered another heart attack while he was in hospital that week.”
When Bobby came back from hospital, the family made lifestyle changes, eating healthier to help him better manage his condition.
However, his job took its toll on him. The family lived in Umzinto, on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast, and he spent early mornings and late evenings travelling to work in Durban where he worked as a clerk at Grindrod.
“He was always on the road.”
In 1998, Candice, who was then a second-year university student, noticed that her father’s health was deteriorating.
“He struggled to breathe and showed signs of a weakening heart, and he was on medication.”
At this point her parents had divorced and her father had remarried.
“I was living with my aunt and uncle in Durban and I remember coming home and my aunt told me that dad received a call from St Augustine’s and they informed him that they found a healthy heart that matched his and he should rush to the hospital.”
Candice was confused and had little understanding of what was going on.
Relief and joy
“In that moment I questioned if it was even possible to take one heart and replace it with another. I questioned what would happen if the body accepted or rejected the heart.
“I was more afraid of losing my dad because he was my pillar of strength. I was scared that I was going to lose him without having had a chance to see him.”
She said witnessing her father’s declining health was painful.
“He was always tired and you could tell just by looking at him that there was poor circulation.”
Together with her aunt and uncle, they rushed to the hospital and waited anxiously through the night for news.
“While we were waiting, I prayed that God be with my father and the doctors because his life was in their hands.”
At about 08:00, six hours after doctors started operating her father, there was relief and joy for the family when they were told that the operation had been a success.
And so, at the age of 41, Bobby was given a new lease on life.
Life appeared to carry on smoothly.
Tribute to Barnard
“When my father turned 50 years old in 2006, it was a milestone. We were so grateful and it was because of the transplant. He could have died much earlier.”
Bobby died on March 1, 2010, at the age of 53.
Although she cannot remember the names of all of the doctors who operated on her father, Candice thanked them.
“It would have never been possible if they did not take that chance. It just shows that anything happens through trial and error.
You have to test the waters to succeed. We were blessed to find a heart that matched and doctors who were willing to go beyond what was expected of them.”
Candice also paid tribute to Barnard.
“If it was not for Dr Chris Barnard, we wouldn’t have had the advancement in technology that we have. People wouldn’t have these second chances. Today we have babies [with heart disease] that grow into healthy adults.”
And it was because of him that her father got a second chance at life, she said.
On December 3, 1967, Barnard performed the world’s first human to human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital, pushing the boundaries of what was then possible in the field. The recipient of the heart, Louis Washkansky, lived for eighteen days after the transplant.
“As a daughter of a recipient of an organ donor, I am urging people to go out there and register, you will never know the joy you give to a family who receives the organ,” said Candice.