Problems of the heart

by Elizabeth Trew

Christiaan Neethling Barnard (1922 – 2001). South African cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant.

Hamilton Naki (1926 – 2005). Black laboratory assistant to white cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard under apartheid. Comemorated for his surgical skills in 2002.


What colour is the heart and its blood?
Is it White or Non-White?
Who removed and delivered the donor’s heart?
The heart of Denise Darvall, who lost her heart while crossing a street
then gave it to Louis Washkansky, the willing receiver
with an incurable heart:
WHITES heart to WHITES heart ONLY.

Enter Hamilton, poor village boy
who rose from gardener to cleaner of animal cages
to teacher with-no-training of students and physicians
to black laboratory assistant of Christiaan,
the white heart surgeon.
Technically, Hamilton is a better surgeon than I am.
Some operations I cannot do.

Behold Hamilton confined to a back-room
where he removes, inserts and stitches livers, jugulars and hearts
into the flesh of a giraffe and many dogs and pigs:
See him crossing the courtyard of Groote Schuur.
He carries a box of hearts for his surgeon
and enters a lift for NON-WHITES ONLY.

It was not possible to deliver the donor’s heart.
WHITES ONLY were allowed in the theatre at that time.

In the Christiaan Barnard Memorial hospital
in the ward of damaged hearts
I feel my own arhythmic heart.
I listen to the girl with a distressed heart
calling continually, Mamy! Mamy!
and the voice of the black doctor on his rounds,
bed-to-bed human-to-human heart to heart.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s