National Geographic chose a medical photograph in 1987 as the best picture of the year, and it was a photo that had an immense impact on the whole world. The photo depicts Dr. Zbigniew Religa watching the vital signs of a patient after a 23-hour heart surgery that he had performed. And in the lower right corner, you see one of his colleagues who is slumped out with fatigue.
Dr. Religa was an innovative and pioneer of heart transplantation surgery in Poland and performed the surgery at a time when people believed it was simply impossible. He took the chance on the patient and the operation was a success. And the really impressive part is that the patient went on to outlive Dr. Religa with his new heart.
The first successful heart transplantation in Poland was done by Dr. Religa and in 1995 he was the first surgeon to graft an artificial valve created from materials taken from human corpses. And even though he is known for his medical achievements, he did also have a successful political career in parallel – he always had immense respect from the Polish people.
When in 1987 he was given the green light to perform the surgery in question, he wasted no time and started immediately – knowing that the surgery would take hours. And after 23 hours of surgery when James Stansfield took a photo that just summed everything up: the bloody mess, the cables, the fatigue of everyone. The picture tells you the story of the surgery, but the photograph also changed the world.
This is because it showed a new side to modern medicine, that it was possible to achieve what doctors thought was impossible. It was hard and exhausting but it was done, it was possible to transplant a man’s heart and make him healthy again. The fact that the patient, Tadeusz Zitkevits, went on to outlive Religa shows how much of a success the surgery was.
Today heart plants save many lives when patients are seemingly doomed and they tend to have high survival rates. All thanks to the talents and innovations of Dr. Religa.