On Friday, January 7, David Bennett, 57, an American from Maryland, underwent surgery; the first human being to receive a pig heart transplant. It was a highly experimental operation and there are no guarantees that the genetically modified pig heart will work for him. But the only option available for him was death and he was not in a hurry for Judgement Day. On the eve of the transplant, Bennett said: “It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.” The seven-hour surgery at a Baltimore hospital was performed by Dr Bartley Griffith.
Two days after the transplant, Bennett, although still connected to a heart-lung machine, was breathing on his own. The transplant proved that a modified animal heart can be welcome in a human without an immediate rejection. The doctors, learning from the 1984 baboon heart transplant on a dying infant, Baby Fae, said they removed a sugar in the pig’s heart cells to stop an hyper-fast organ rejection. Baby Fae had survived only for 21 days.
Essentially, the human heart, which is the size of a clenched fist, is a muscle pumping blood to all parts of the body, thereby providing it with oxygen and nutrients. It is also part of the system that controls the blood pressure and heartbeat.
Medicinenet explains that: “The heart is a pump, usually beating about 60 to 100 times per minute. With each heartbeat, the heart sends blood throughout our bodies, carrying oxygen to every cell. After delivering the oxygen, the blood returns to the heart. The heart then sends the blood to the lungs to pick up more oxygen.” In other words, the heart is life.
Yes, the heart is personal to each human, but sometimes it needs a replacement, which hitherto had been with another human heart.
Perhaps the person with the longest heart transplant experience is Cheri Latzke Lemmer, who received a new human heart at 24 in 1981, went back to work and 40 years later, is still alive.
The race to get an alternative for human heart transplant is basically due to the lack of donors; many people, even when terminally ill, prefer taking their hearts with them to the grave. At any time, thousands of human beings are waiting for a transplant and at least a quarter of them die while on the queue. Not all who get the transplant survive, as they may suffer rejection due to the immune system, displaying xenophobic traits by seeing the new heart as foreign, and attacking it. Again, after transplant, there can also be graft failure or the narrowing of the arteries supplying blood to the heart.
Also, heart transplant can be unaffordable for many. For instance, in Nigeria, a heart transplant may cost between N16-20 million. A Nigerian worker on the monthly national minimum wage of N30,000, assuming he spends no kobo from his wages and pays no taxes or bills, will need to work for half a century to be able to afford a transplant. Yet in the public service, the maximum he can work is 35 years. So, for the Nigerian masses and the middle class, a serious heart problem is nothing but a death sentence. But their chances of a heart transplant might have become brighter because in the long run, the modified heart of a pig may be easily available and much more affordable. It might also be better received by the immune system.
To discuss the propriety or morality of receiving the heart of a pig, is like blaming the victim. As the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) was won’t to argue; we are not talking in the name of morality, but in that of its victims. A drowning human being will clutch to anything, even a straw to survive; given the option of dying without a heart transplant or surviving, even if the heart transplanted is that of a pig, almost all rational human beings will prefer the heart of a pig. Having such transplant does not make the recipient a pig; that is more behavioural.
Even without a pig heart transplant, some humans behave like pigs. I recall that for decades, before the Black Lives Matter Movement, radical Black activists who reject the racism that was, or is, the American establishment, called the United States policemen, pigs or use the word ‘pig’ as a synonym for the policeman. Some even use explicit racist terms like, ‘White pigs’
There are those who believe the heart is the soul and spirit of the human. Hence when they say a person has a kind heart, it means he is a good person. So, given the fact that we tend to be quite religious, the question arises, will a person with a pig heart transplant make heaven? I do not need to ask the disjointed Mummy G.O of Nigeria, an expert on Heaven Affairs who claims to be familiar with heaven and knows those who will make it and those who will not. But I know that the make of the heart of the candidates for Hell or Heaven, whether natural or transplanted, will not count in their Grade Point Average, GPA.
Scripturally, I do not know if the pig is unclean. But my conviction on this is guided by the experiences of Apostle Peter. He was hungry and while his food was being prepared, he fell into a trance in which he was shown all sorts of animals, birds and reptiles. Then, a voice came to him: “ Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said: “ No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” But the voice came again: “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.” Peter experienced this three times. (Acts: 9-16)
The Apostles emphasised that God is the maker of heaven and earth. In 1848, the great Anglo-Irish hymn writer and poet Cecil Frances Alexander who is also famous for writing the Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ taught this creationist view of God to young children in one of the most beautiful and captivating hymns ever written titled ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’ In it she asserted: “All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all…He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell, How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well.”
If you agree, then in a question of life or death, you are unlikely to accept the heart of a human being but reject the heart of a pig, for God made them all.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.
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