Monday, September 3, 2001
My father was a missionary among the coloured [mixed race] people of Beaufort West in the scrubland of the Karroo, which is South Africa's Arizona. That's where I was born, and now the house where I was born is a museum and in it is the bed that I was born in. Next door is my father's church and that's also a museum and all my accolades and testimonials are displayed there. That's where my father preached, my mother played the organ and I pumped the bellows for it by hand. I always say maybe that's where, subconsciously, I started getting interested in the pump, which is simply what the heart is, after all.
I can remember as a boy when they rang a big bell in Beaufort West at 9 o'clock and all the coloured people had to leave town for the night. My father, however, would not accept any difference between white people and black or coloured people. If there was a cross-roads in my life it was when I learned that tolerance from my father. And for me it was a great disaster when the Nationalist [apartheid] party came into power in 1948. But my father said to me, 'Son, for some people the mills of God grind slowly but surely.' And here we are in Mandela's South Africa and we've seen for ourselves the slow but sure grinding of the mills.
My father taught me not just racial tolerance but the kindness of life, the love of nature. He would take me walking in the veldt and he'd point out the plants and the creatures there and we'd look at the stars like a glittering blanket above us. From him I developed my love for the veldt and the wildness of the Karroo and many years later I was able to return and buy a farm outside of Beaufort West. That's where my roots are.
If my father taught me tolerance, my mother taught me ambition. You must always be the first, she used to say. But she also tempered that with humility. When the plum tree is full of ripe fruit, she said, its branches hang low to the ground. Achievement doesn't mean having a high opinion of yourself. I think that helped me later in life. Whatever happened to me I always tried to find time for everybody, not just the notable people but the man-in-the-street. Some people say I'm abrupt and arrogant. But I've always been straightforward and honest even though sometimes that honesty has been detrimental to me.
And, no, I didn't dissect beetles or anything like that when I was a boy. There was no great event that made me go into medicine. I had an elder brother studing mechanical engineering and I was interested in that. My parents also had a second child who died when he was three or four. I don't remember him but my father, who was very sentimental, once showed me a little marie biscuit with the boy's teeth marks in it. That must have been the last bite he took before he died. And now I look back and I see pictures of the little boy and see the terrible suffering in his face and I realize that he died of a heart problem and that had he lived in my time as a cardiac surgeon I probably could have cured him.
But as a boy I collected pets, I didn't cut them up. I collected scorpions and the thing that fascinated me was that after they mated, the female killed the male. I'm glad that isn't the case in human terms otherwise I would have been dead many times already.
I've had a lot of lucky choices forced on me in my life. The first was going into medicine, not engineering. The second was having to leave a general practice, which I loved, in Ceres in the western Cape, because the business couldn't support three partners. If I'd have stayed there I probably would still have been a GP. The third was applying for a bursary in England and being turned down. If I'd got it I would never have become a heart surgeon because they weren't that far advanced in heart surgery in England. The fourth was when I was studying general surgery under Professor Wangensteen at the University of Minnesota. One day I was invited to lend a hand on work on a heart-lung machine. That's when I became fascinated by open-heart surgery. That's what led me back to South Africa to run my own cardiac surgery unit and to the 1967 heart transplant. Before that I had applied for a job at the National Heart Institute in London and again I was turned down. And if I'd got it I wouldn't have done the heart transplant. So you see my life is full of luck.
The heart transplant wasn't such a big thing surgically. The technique was a basic one. The point is that I was prepared to take the risk. My philosphy is that the biggest risk in life is not to take a risk. But the operation, and its significance as the first of its kind, took me into another world. Not just professionally but personally and socially. I loved it. I'm a guy who loves people, I love the female sex and I like to enjoy life. You think I was under stress meeting with Gina Lollobrigida? Not on your life. I'm easy to get on with, to party with. The professors in Europe, they couldn't understand me. I wasn't fat and bald and didn't wear glasses. I was a pretty good looking guy and could put a lot of entertainment and emotion into my lectures. A journalist in Germany once told me I'd never be recognized as a professor in his country because I wasn't serious enough.
When I retired in 1983 they said it was because I had arthritis but that was just an excuse. Actually it was because I wasn't hungry for the work any more. I'd lost my enthusiasm. It was only after my retirement that I began to make real money. But then I started lecture tours, charging for appearances. I wrote a couple of books and generated enough income to buy my farm in Beaufort West. I set up the Chris Barnard Foundation, which brings patients, especially kids, from all over the world to South Africa for heart surgery. And I've just written another book "50 ways to a healthy heart" which has already been translated into 24 languages.
You know that laughter is one of those ways. Laughter is very therapeutic. Anything that makes lilfe less miserable, more happy, is good for you. That's why sex is good for the heart. I'm working on another book that I might call "The Ten Commandments of Medicine" in which I'm going to point out how people today are being bluffed by their doctors. The treatment of people today is dishonest. Medical technology has replaced the doctor-patient relationship. Medicine today is injections, drugs, surgery and bills. How often do you go to a doctor these days and the doctor tells you, you must laugh more often, listen to some good music, sleep, relax, have sex, use Viagra if it helps? I've been married three times and all the credit must go to Loutjie, my first wife, who took the strain and stood by me when we were young. We're still good friends. Loutjie married me because she loved me, my second wife married me because of my fame and my third because of my fame and money. But I have no regrets. At almost 79, people ask me: where do you go from here? I say to them I'm on the waiting list. I don't know exactly where I am on that list or where I'm going, but I'm on it.