It’s been heart week on Radio 4, celebrating the anniversary of the first ‘successful’ heart transplant in 1967, which was performed, controversially, by Dr Christiaan Barnard in South Africa on a patient called Louis Washkansky (who survived the operation and lived for 18 days). The heart, that mysterious, almost mystical organ, is freighted with such cultural significance that back then there were some who thought such feats of medical skill were tampering dangerously with our humanity. Change the heart, and the person within would never be the same. Now, though, as Giles Fraser discovered in his series This Old Heart of Mine (produced by Victoria Shepherd), the official definition of death is determined not by the persistent thump of that heartbeat but by whether the brainstem is dead. The heart is nothing more than a pump. Vital, maybe, but only an essentially mechanical device; nothing emotional about it.
Earlier this year Fraser underwent major heart surgery and in his five short programmes he tried to defy this truth by looking at how not just his arteries have been affected but also his thoughts, his feelings, his beliefs. There was no health warning attached to the programme. You know the kind of thing: ‘Listeners are warned they might be upset by what follows…’ But this was strong stuff from the Canon (best known for scything through questions of conscience on The Moral Maze), and most definitely not for the faint-hearted.
He goes to meet the surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital in London who performed his quadruple heart bypass. Fraser wanted to know what it felt like for the surgeon to hold his heart and literally massage it back to life. ‘You have to be a good sewer,’ said the surgeon, ‘as there’s not much room for error.’ (The bypass is stitched into the pumping system.)