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Reunion marks 40 years since Europe’s first successful heart-lung transplant

The surgeon who led Europe’s first successful heart and lung transplant told of his joy at seeing patients go on to lead a good life on the 40th anniversary of the landmark operation.

Professor John Wallwork led the team of medics who carried out the pioneering surgery at the then Papworth Hospital in the village of Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire, in 1984.

Patient Brenda Barber was 36 at the time of the procedure, overnight from April 4 to April 5.

The mother from south London had been days from death when she agreed to the surgery.

She went on to live for another decade with her new heart and lungs, dying in 1994.

Heart-lung transplant anniversary
Two of the longest surviving heart-lung transplant patients Tineke Dixon (left) and Katie Mitchell (right) with their surgeon Professor John Wallwork (Joe Giddens/PA)

Around 360 heart-lung transplants have been carried out at the leading cardiothoracic hospital since then.

Prof Wallwork, who retired as chairman of the now Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge earlier this year, was reunited with some of his patients and former colleagues at the hospital on Thursday.

The 77-year-old was in America in 1981 when he helped with the world’s first heart-lung transplant, at Stanford University Hospital in California where he was chief resident.

He later led Europe’s first successful heart-lung transplant operation at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire in 1984.

“The onus was on us to get it right,” he said, talking about the operation at Papworth.

“We’d done our homework and I’d done heart-lung transplants myself before in America.”

He said that after surgery Ms Barber “got back to leading her normal life, she got back to looking after her daughter, she got back to working as a childcare assistant, she lived 10 years following that transplant”.

Heart-lung transplant anniversary
The case notes of Brenda Barber, Europe’s first successful heart-lung transplant patient (Joe Giddens/ PA)

“I think to see people who had very poor quality of life or indeed no life to look forward to actually leading a good normal life is just a great thrill,” said Prof Wallwork.

He said that “getting what is essentially pioneering stuff, getting it to be routine is the important thing because then you can help more people”.

Theatre scrub nurse Celia Hyde, who was part of the team for Ms Barber’s transplant, said: “It was such a privilege to be there, to actually see what was going on, to see that empty chest and then to hear that the patient was breathing, speaking and things a few days later.

“Absolutely fantastic.”

The 68-year-old said she moved onto working in transplant outpatients, where she cared for Ms Barber after her operation.

“I think people forget it’s the simple things,” said Ms Hyde.

Heart-lung transplant anniversary
John Wallwork (centre) with (left to right) Hazel Farren, Dawn Wheeldon, Celia Hyde and Maureen Rootes who were part of the team that performed the op in 1984 (Joe Giddens/PA)

“It’s like being able to dress yourself, it’s being able to talk and laugh.

“Those are the things that are crucial for us to be happy human beings and I think Brenda went into life thinking ‘I’m a mother, I want to do all of these things’, and she did that with her daughter.”

Dawn Wheeldon, 80, also a theatre scrub nurse in the medical team, said: “It was a privilege to be there, part of the team, to work with all the people I did and produced a result that gave her back her life really, and the ability to carry on and see her daughter grow up.

“That was one of her ambitions.

“It’s quite daunting.

“You just don’t know whether it’s all going to go to plan but it did and John Wallwork is a very good teacher and he led the team very well.

“I think if you’ve got confidence in your leader then everything else falls into place.”

She said it was “lovely” to be reunited with some of her former colleagues, adding that working at the old Papworth Hospital was “one of the happiest times of my career”.

Heart-lung transplant anniversary
Heart-lung transplant patient Freya Potter, 18 (Joe Giddens/PA)

One of the longest-surviving heart-transplant patients Tineke Dixon, of Exmouth in Devon, also attended Thursday’s reunion.

The 51-year-old’s transplant surgery, at Great Ormond Street Hospital in November 1988, was also led by Prof Wallwork, who was helping train the surgeons there to have their own heart-lung programme.

She said she had been struggling to walk, was blue and pale and “basically losing my life” before her operation more than 35 years ago, and has since gone on to enjoy sailing and skydiving.

The project manager said it was “so lovely” to be reunited with Prof Wallwork and the medical team.

“It just feels like the right moment to say ‘we’ve done some amazing things in the last 40 years’,” she said.

“But now we need to almost reinvent it and recreate it for the new challenging patients coming along.”

College student Freya Potter, 18, from near Salisbury in Wiltshire, had a heart-lung transplant at Royal Papworth Hospital on the day of her 17th birthday in 2022, and attended Thursday’s reunion.

She said it was “quite inspiring” to meet other heart-lung patients at the reunion.

“I’m quite worried about how long my transplant will last,” she said.

“But seeing people 30 years on really makes me think that it will actually be OK and I will last longer than I think.”