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The History of a Single Picture that Changed the World

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The History of a Single Picture that Changed the World

Heart transplants save a great amount of lives in today’s world. It is amazing and incredible how far medicine has come!

Today we will focus on this one particular heart transplant that happened in Poland in 1987, performed by Dr. Zbigniew Religa.

Dr. Zbigniew Religa was a Polish cardiac surgeon and he was Head of Cardiovascular Surgery Clinic in Zabrze. He took the chance on performing a, what was thought at the time, borderline impossible surgery, and he performed it successfully!

On the picture you can see Dr. Zbigniew Religa watching the vitals on his patient Tadeusz Zitkevits after a 23 hour long surgery! In the right corner of the picture you can see one of his colleagues that helped him with the surgery asleep on the floor.

Zbigniew Religa after a 23 hour heart transplant, watching his patient’s vital signs. Image via National Geographic.

Back in 1987, once the surgery got approved and he was allowed to perform it, he didn’t waste a single moment to save his patients life. A very complicated and demanding surgery, even though many thought that it might not be successful, Dr. Zbigniew Religa proved wrong to plenty. He was a great cardiac surgeon who put in an extreme amount of effort and care, tried for 23 long hours to save his patient and succeeded in saving that man’s life.

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At that time, he went against the Catholic church to perform the surgery, because the Catholic Church believed that it was damning to desecrate a body by removing any organs. All the other hospitals and doctors were worried about losing their licenses if they go ahead and perform the surgery, scared it would be unsuccessful.

Without any government funding, support or resources, Dr. Religa and his team privately raised the funds, allegedly going to the Polish Mafia for assistance, and founded the Silesian Heart Disease Center in Zabrze.

The photo was taken by James Stansfield and this photo has changed the world! Even National Geographic chose this as the best picture of 1987!

Dr. Zbigniew Religa has showed a different side of modern medicine and has proved that it is possible to do the impossible! Even though the doctor has passed away, the patient’s heart is still beating and Tadeusz Zitkevits is still alive.

Tadeusz Zitkevits, the patient who received the heart transplant, 25 years after the surgery. Image via National Geographic.

Dr. Zbigniew Religa conducted the very first and successful heart transplant in the country. In June 1995, he was the first surgeon to graft an artificial valve created from materials taken from human corpses.

In 1963, Religa finished his studies at the Medical University of Warsaw. In 1973, he visited New York City to train in vascular surgery, and in 1975 he trained in cardiac surgery in Detroit.

Besides from being an amazing doctor, this person also had a successful political career. In 1993, he became a member of the Polish senate and was re-elected in 2001. He was a promising candidate in the 2005 Polish presidential elections; even as he backed out of the presidential race with only 6% of the votes, he earned significant respect from the Polish population. From 2005 to 2006, he served as the Minister of Health.

The Polish surgeon excelled in the field of transplantation the ’90s, and in 2004 was awarded for the development of an implantable pump to support cardiac function.

Dr. Zbigniew Religa died on March 8, 2009. The cause of his death was the suffering from lung cancer. Although he knew as a doctor the dangers of smoking a cigarette, unfortunately, he was a big smoker. When the disease was detected, it was already at a very advanced stage and there was nothing they could do about it and they couldn’t try to save his life.

The funeral was held at the cemetery for non Catholics because Religa was an atheist. His funeral was broadcasted live on television. The photographer that took the picture and his patient Zitkevits Tadeusz were both present on the funeral. His 88 year old patient was holding the photo taken that day throughout the whole funeral.

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