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Longest-Surviving Heart Transplant Patient Dies

July 7, 1994 GMT

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Dirk van Zyl, the world’s longest surviving heart transplant patient, died Wednesday in a nursing home, 23 years after the operation. He was 68.

Van Zyl had recently suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed on his left side, and his death was not caused by heart failure, said his son, Coenie van Zyl.

The elder van Zyl received a new heart in a 1971 operation performed by the pioneering surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard. He was Barnard’s sixth transplant patient. Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

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″He was spared for us for another 23 years,″ Coenie van Zyl, 30, said of his father. ″I think that’s excellent.″

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1992 on the 25th anniversary of the first transplant, van Zyl said he always encouraged people considering transplant surgery to take the risk.

″They are all a little afraid because it is a big operation and the doctors always tell them they have a 50-50 chance,″ van Zyl said. ″I tell them if you go, you have that 50-50 chance, but if you don’t go for the transplant, there is no chance.″

During van Zyl’s surgery, his ailing heart stopped beating and the anaesthetist said he was dead. Barnard revived him and completed the transplant.

Van Zyl, who was white, received the heart of a mixed-race man who died in a fall from a tree. Under apartheid laws at the time of the operation, van Zyl would have been unable to receive treatment in the same hospital as his donor.

About 3,500 transplants are currently performed each year, mostly in the United States. The survival rate for the first year exceeds 90 percent.

Van Zyl’s wife died in 1993. He is survived by two sons and two grandchildren.