Graham Bridgstock of the London Daily Mail interviewed professor Chris Barnard in 1998.
july 28, 1998
Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967. But his glittering career was cut short in 1983 by rheumatoid arthritis. Once famous for his film-star good looks and the glamorous women he dated, at 75 he lives in Cape Town with his third wife Karin, 41 years his junior, their son Armin, nine, and daughter Lara, 14 months. Pain has been my companion every day and night since I was 30 and studying heart surgery at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Standing all day at the operating table, I initially blamed the pain in my feet on having gone ice skating in a pair of borrowed skates that were too tight. Eventually, however, when the pain started affecting other joints, I consulted a rheumatologist. He examined me, took blood samples and then gently broke the news I had been dreading: I had rheumatoid arthritis. To be good at your profession you have to get up in the morning and be hungry for work. But by 1983, when I was forced to retire, the pain had robbed me of that hunger. Instead, I was thinking of excuses to avoid operating.
Now the pain is everywhere: in my hands, hips, neck, shoulders, knees, wrists and even my muscles and tendons. My feet – where it all began – are crippled and I have to wear a sort of brace, called metatarsal bars, to avoid standing on the balls of them. Inevitably, if you’re a public figure with something such as rheumatoid arthritis, everyone wants to cure you.
One guy even advised me: ‘Put a nickel under the sole of you right foot and a dime under the sole of your left.’ Some concoctions people have sent me look and smell so evil that I’m afraid to try them, in case they poison me. So I keep them in a museum I have for anyone who wants to do some research. But the most bizarre remedy was from a Swiss clinic that claimed injecting foetal cells from lambs was the answer. Over ten years, I underwent the treatment three times and had a total of 36 jabs. Not only was it very painful, but it made no difference at all. The truth is, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, although there are some natural remissions from time to time.
However, after looking at experimental studies and clinical findings I have started a new method of pain control called Action Potential Simulation. It works by sending a small electric current into the affected area to relieve the pain. The first time I tried it, six months ago, I felt relief after only 16 minutes.
Now I keep the machine in my wardrobe and use it three times a week on painful joints and on my back to stimulate the release of neuro hormones, the natural opiates secreted by the body to combat pain. Whereas before I had tried to take anti-inflammatory drugs every day, it’s every three days now. And since pain saps your strength, with less pain your mobility improves. Apart from rheumatoid arthritis, I am a very healthy man.
Pain isn’t pleasant but you can learn to live with it. At 75, I’m 6ft 1in and 12st 11lb. My teeth are all my own, not even a crown, I can read without glasses and I’m as active as I was when I was doing surgery. These days I do a lot of charity work, some novels, some on medicine. Being a father again at my age keeps me young too. The score so far is six children from three marriages.