Precisely 38 years ago, on November 5, 1985, Professor Zbigniew Religa achieved a groundbreaking milestone in Polish medical history by conducting the country’s first successful heart transplant. The operation took place at the Silesian Center for Heart Diseases in Zabrze.
In the 1980s, the success rate of such operations in Poland was a mere 50 percent due to the lack of adequately trained medical staff, as Prof. Religa recalled. The shortage of skilled personnel posed a significant challenge to performing heart transplants. Reflecting on the early days, Religa revealed that he was the only qualified person in the entire clinic trained for this procedure; for 95 percent of the cardiac surgery team, this was uncharted territory.
Religa’s journey into medicine was not an obvious one. Despite initially lacking a profound interest in academic pursuits during his teenage years, he eventually chose medicine due to his parents’ influence. His passion for medicine blossomed during his studies, leading him to specialize in cardiothoracic surgery.
The first successful heart transplant was a testament to Religa’s skill, professionalism, courage, and determination. In an era where the concept of brain death was not universally accepted, finding a suitable donor was a challenging task. Eventually, a donor, a victim of a car accident, was identified. The recipient, a 62-year-old man, survived the surgery for two months but succumbed to sepsis caused by immunosuppressive drugs. Despite the challenges, the procedure was deemed successful, marking the first of many such operations performed by Prof. Religa and his team.
Prior to the groundbreaking heart transplant, extensive preparations were made, including experiments such as xenogeneic heart transplants (between different species), although these attempts were not successful. Nevertheless, these experiments contributed to refining the surgical techniques.
Religa’s contributions to Polish cardiothoracic surgery did not end with this achievement. He went on to perform the country’s first lung and heart transplant in 1986 and conducted procedures for the treatment of chronic pulmonary thromboembolism in 1990. Additionally, he initiated the creation of the Laboratory of Artificial Heart at the Silesian Academy of Medicine in 1988 and developed a prototype of an artificial heart and biological valve in 1991.