Pioneering Papworth surgeon retires

A PAPWORTH surgeon who hit the headlines in 1984 after conducting Europe’s first successful heart and lung transplant is retiring on Friday after granting thousands of patients the gift of life.

A PAPWORTH surgeon who hit the headlines in 1984 after conducting Europe’s first successful heart and lung transplant is retiring on Friday after granting thousands of patients the gift of life.

Professor John Wallwork leaves Papworth Hospital after securing the specialist heart and lung hospital’s place in history books and helping make it the country’s main heart and lung transplant centre.

After completing his surgical training in Edinburgh, Prof Wallwork trained with Prof Norman Shumway of Stanford University, California - dubbed the ‘father of heart transplantation’ - in the United States.

The world’s first successful heart and lung transplant was performed by Professor Bruce Reitz in 1981 at Stanford University’s Medical Centre, assisted by Prof Wallwork and Prof Shumway.

Prof Wallwork then carried out Europe’s first successful heart and lung transplant at Papworth Hospital in 1984 before setting up a children’s service for the procedure at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Together with Addenbrooke’s surgeon Prof Sir Roy Calne, Prof Wallwork carried out the world’s first heart, lung and liver transplant at Papworth in 1986.

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At a time when he had a young family, Prof Wallwork and two other surgeons were available night and day, in the hope of receiving a call that could bring years of life to somebody awaiting an organ transplant.

And as organs tend to be harvested after a hospital’s daily surgery list is complete, this meant working round the clock.

Prof Wallwork would wait for the organ and recipient to arrive at Papworth - often by helicopter onto the village’s cricket pitch - so that transplant surgery could be undertaken as a matter of urgency and ideally within four hours of the donor organ being harvested.

He said: “By their very nature transplant operations are impossible to plan because you don’t know when an organ will become available.

“And you forget all this started before mobile phones were available.

“The 1980s were very exciting times as we were always developing new ideas and techniques.

“In the early years of transplantation all the patients were in the news but now you find they are going back and living normal lives.

“And it is good for them not being celebrities.

“The International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation started in 1981, initially attended by a small number of delegates. There are now 2,000 delegates attending this prestigious meeting each year.”

Both Prof Wallwork and Sir Terence English, who carried out the first successful heart transplant at Papworth Hospital in 1979, are past presidents.

The longest surviving combined heart and lung transplant patient is cystic fibrosis sufferer Julie Bennett who Prof Wallwork operated on 26 years ago.

Like all transplant patients at Papworth, Ms Bennett has had regular appointments at the hospital ever since, despite having to travel from her home in Chepstow in the Welsh borders.

She said: “When I had my transplant in 1985 it really was groundbreaking surgery and I never dreamt that I would be here 26 years later to see John Wallwork retire.

“I never thought that he would leave Papworth before I did.

“Words cannot describe the gratitude that I feel. He and the team at Papworth Hospital have really become like my second family.

“I will miss John immensely but I do wish him a long and happy retirement.”

Prof Wallwork said he, in turn, was surprised to be retiring while Papworth Hospital is still located in the village.

The specialist hospital is due to move onto the biomedical campus at the Addenbrooke’s Hospital site in Cambridge in 2015.

Prof Wallwork reflected: “When I came here they told me we would be moving within three years and it’s nearly 30 years on now.

“I would like to see Papworth Hospital retain its ethos. Its name is important but it is the people who work in the hospital that make it special, for the patients of today and for the patients who will be treated in the new Papworth Hospital.”

More than 2,000 open heart surgery procedures are undertaken at Papworth Hospital each year and up to 100 heart and lung transplant operations are performed.

More than half of patients survive more than 10 years after transplant and have a marked improvement in their quality of life following surgery.

Prof Wallwork conducted his final operation earlier this month.

In addition to pioneering heart and lung transplant surgery, he has conducted research into why organs are rejected as well as undertaking trials into how animal organs can be genetically modified for human use.

He has also trained surgeons across the globe in addition to those in the UK.

When asked of his retirement plans, Prof Wallwork said he was keen to promote the planned research institute linked to the new hospital building where his legacy of research can be developed.

“Our health service can only provide up-to-date first-class care if it is allowed also to be innovative which is why the institute is going to be so important,” he said.