It is noticeable that, while most people can recite the names of surgical pioneers like Chris Barnard and transplant recipients like Louis Washkansky and Dorothy Fisher, few of us know the donors who have either voluntarily sacrificed much or whose relatives have made heart-breaking decisions to make their organs available for transplantation.
Of all the human beings whose stories I have encountered on my journey through heart failure and transplant therapy, there is one whose story stands out – Edward Darvall and, by association, his daughter, Denise, whose heart was used in the first human transplant performed in 1967.
Today, the lack of knowledge of donors is regulated by the necessary protocols to manage privacy.
At the time, Denise Darvall, quite literally, “gave her heart for humanity”. That was the headline used in newspapers when the story of the heart transplant broke on December 4, 1967.
Bank clerk Denise, 25, was out with her family on a summery Saturday afternoon buying a cake to take to tea with friends. She and her mother Myrtle were walking along Main Road, Observatory to the car which Denise had recently bought and where her father and brother were waiting, when they were run over by a drunk driver, policeman Friedrich Prins.
Denise’s mother was killed instantly. Denise suffered severe injuries including skull fractures and head injuries. She was declared brain dead at 9pm that night.
When approached by doctors at Groote Schuur about the possibility of donating Denise’s heart for transplantation into Washkansky, Edward Darvall is recorded as saying that it took him four minutes to make up his mind to agree to the transplant. Denise “was always giving things to people” and her father decided that if she had been able to answer the question herself, she would have said yes.
“So I said to him, well doctor, if you can’t save my daughter, try and save this man.”
Denise’s heart went to Washkansky and her kidneys to Jonathan van Wyk, 10. (In the context of the apartheid era, it is worth recording that Denise was white and Jonathan coloured.)
The public record shows that Edward Darvall mostly shunned publicity. He had undergone major stomach surgery, but his strength of character and dignity earned him many admirers. Before the joint funeral of his wife and daughter, he asked for donations to be sent to the Groote Schuur cardiac unit.
Darvall attended the court hearing of policeman Prins and when the drunk driver was convicted of culpable homicide, the heartbroken spouse and father made a statement through an attorney, asking the magistrate to show “the greatest possible clemency” to Prins. Tragic as his daughter’s death was, it had not been pointless but had benefited humanity, he said.
Prins was sentenced to two years in jail, with one year suspended for three years.
Edward Darvall died in 1970 and never regretted the decision he had taken for Denise’s organs to be donated.