The passing in 2014 of Professor Joseph Borman was felt far and wide. This eminent cardiac surgeon performed the first successful heart transplant in Israel and was a great friend of Prof. Christiaan Barnard.
“You know, if I never understood exactly why I am in Israel, today I found the answer. I feel so much part of the country. I feel I am contributing in the most meaningful way I can to the care of the wounded and the welfare of Israel as a whole. I shall never again have doubts about our decision to settle in this small, developing land – which is our own and which is so dear to Jews all over the world.”
Since Professor Joe Borman expressed these words to his wife from a callbox in Beersheba Hospital during the Six Day War, this former South African – “born in the same little room in Krugersdorp that I was conceived in” – went on to emerge as a giant of Israeli medicine and the founding father of modern open-heart cardiac surgery.
His no-less esteemed colleague Professor Mervyn Gotsman, (another former South African), wrote in the foreword to Joe’s 2013 autobiography ‘Open Hearts – Memoirs of a Cardiac Surgeon’:
“Joe was a pioneer in valve replacement surgery, particularly in children. He pioneered coronary artery bypass surgery and undertook the nation’s first successful heart transplant. His surgical prowess was unusual and many of his patients are alive thirty years after their initial operations.”
After graduating in medicine at Wits, Joe came on a visit to Israel in 1956 with his parents. Staying in Haifa, a friend suggested after a day of sightseeing, that they go dancing. Considering the ‘risks’ he would later take professionally, it was strange that an introduction “to a nice girl, an officer in the IDF,” had Joe panicked.
With visions of “a well-muscled, powerful Amazonian who would flip me over her shoulder if she thought I stepped out of line,” Joe declined the blind date.
Fate would intervene.
Less than a year later in London, Joe’s imagined “Amazon” in the form of “a slim, beautiful and vivacious Sabra,” turned up on his doorstep in London to deliver a personal letter to him from Israel. Three months later they were married.
Joe admits to only one hiccup in the short courtship. “I took her to a game of cricket. After the umpteenth tea-break, she reproached me, “How could you subject me to this boredom?”
But life was anything but ‘boring’ for the Bormans!
Medical trailblazers, Joe’s team at Hadassah did the first valve transplant, the first coronary by-pass, and in 1987, the first successful heart transplant. Joe related that before “we could perform the first operation, we had to convince Hadassah hospital, the Ministry of Health, Kupot Holim and finally, the most difficult, the Chief Rabbinate, that ‘brain dead’ in the donor, amounted to halachically dead.”
Orchestrated like a military operation, “we were notified on the 25th August 1987 that a matching brain-dead donor was available in Haifa. The selected recipient was rushed to our hospital, while simultaneously, the ‘harvest team’ was helicoptered to Rambam Hospital in Haifa to collect the donor heart.”
Only when they
heard that the helicopter had landed on the helipad at Hadassah Hospital, did they remove the “large, scarred, faintly beating heart,” from the recipient, “leaving a huge empty space in the middle of his chest cavity.”
Describing the tension in the operating room immediately following the transplant, “You could hear a pin drop with everyone holding their breath. We had applied electric shock and waited for the heart to come to life. It kind of trembled, but I did not know if it would pick up. Then there was another little beat, then another slightly stronger, and as it began to pound so did mine, as I knew we had pulled it off.”
Heading home later, he was mobbed by reporters. Asked by one, “What is your next dream?” he replied:
“That there would be no rush for interviews after future transplants as they would become routine procedures.” Indeed, that vision emerged a reality. As Herzl counselled well over a century earlier: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The patient lived for 30 months until succumbing to a stroke, while the second heart transplant patient Joe related in 2013 – “is still alive today, twenty-five years after the operation. He is by far the longest-surviving Israeli heart transplant patient and I would hazard a guess that he is among the longest such survivors worldwide. He continues to call me every Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Pesach (Passover).”
Wonders of the Ward
On the first day of the Six Day War, “We, at Beer-Sheba Hospital, began to receive casualties from the front.” A pediatrician Dr. Shimon Mozes burst into the operating room and “implored me to immediately come to see a nineteen-year-old who was in deep shock.” Asking his assistant to complete the closure of the chest of a wounded soldier, Joe rushed with Shimon to examine the patient. With no palpable pulse and not breathing, Joe said to Shimon, “What do you want me to do? This poor guy is dead.”
“He responded less than a minute ago when I raced off to call you. We must save him,” pleaded Shimon, who was a colleague of the boy’s father. Together they rushed the patient to the operating room, hoping “that the period without oxygenated blood-flow to the brain had not exceeded four minutes.”
Without scrubbing his hands, Joe pulled on a pair of gloves and a gown, rapidly cleaned and draped the area, and cut into the patient’s bullet-injured groin, slicing through the huge hematoma that had formed. The minutes of operating action ticked by until “the anesthetist announced, “You won’t believe it, but I can now record his blood pressure,” Two minutes later he added, “The patient is starting to move: I shall have to anesthetize him.”
Two hours after the operation, Joe walked to the recovery room to see how the “near-dead” youngster was faring. “I expected him to still be unconscious and was still concerned that he might have suffered irreversible brain damage.” There were about half dozen patients in the room, and so he went up to the first and asked, “Which one here is Lancet?”
“I am Doron Lancet,” he answered. Joe chided him, “Listen, I have no time for games. Which of these people in the room is Lancet?”
“I don’t know what you want from me, but I am Doron Lancet.”
Surviving “clinical death,” Doron Lancet would emerge a brilliant senior scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and leader of the Israeli team that contributed significantly to the mapping of the human genome.
Throughout Joe’s autobiography, the humanity and ethics of the medical profession shine through as evident in the treatment of enemy soldiers “who only hours before were killing and maiming our soldiers.” Despite the mixed emotions of the medical staff, “those casualties whose lives were threatened were treated first, irrespective of their identity. Ultimately, every wounded enemy soldier received the necessary surgery. Not a single one died waiting for care.”
A similar display of humanity played out when a reserved officer in the IDF was shot in the head by an Arab terrorist while on patrol in the Gaza Strip. “Soon after arriving in hospital he was declared brain-dead. The family agreed to organ donation and among those suitably matched and waiting a transplant was an Arab from East Jerusalem.” There was much discussion over the prospective candidates “but because the Arab was in the most urgent need of the operation, he underwent the transplant and lived for many years.” While there was some criticism at the time “the answer was supplied a year later, when a Palestinian in the autonomous territories was diagnosed as brain-dead following a motor accident. The family were approached and unselfishly agreed to multi-organ harvesting. Five Israelis and one Palestinian benefited, each being granted a new lease on life. The donor family emphasized that their decision was positively influenced by the courageous decision we had made the previous year.”
In his final chapter dealing with the subject of mortality, Joe amusingly surmised:
“Maybe it would be better if our lifecycle went backwards: You should die first – get it out the way… finally becoming a baby; go back to the womb. You spend the last nine months floating and finish off as an orgasm.”