Mum had second chance at life after Europe’s first successful heart-lung transplant in 1984

Handout photo dated 1984 issued by the Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust of Brenda Barber (right) at Papworth Hospital as she recovers from her heart-lung transplant, along with her surgeon John Wallwork (centre) and nurse Hazel Farren (left). The surgeon who led Europe's first successful heart and lung transplant told of his joy at seeing patients go on to lead a good life on the 40th anniversary of the landmark operation. Issue date: Thursday April 4, 2024.
Brenda Barber at Papworth Hospital in 1984 as she recovers from her heart-lung transplant, with her surgeon John Wallwork watching on. Credit: Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

A mother lived on to see her daughter grow up after being given a new heart and lungs in a pioneering operation 40 years ago.

Brenda Barber was the first patient in Europe to successfully get a heart and lung transplant in Cambridgeshire in 1984.

The 36-year-old from south London had been days from death when she agreed to the surgery at the then-Papworth Hospital. She went on to live for another decade.

The historic moment paved the way for hundreds of patients who would have died early to lead fulfilling lives - one even enjoyed sailing and skydiving.

Brenda Barber (centre) with nurse Hazel Farren (left) Credit: Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

The surgeon who led the surgery was reunited with his patients at the hospital on Thursday - exactly 40 years after the operation.

Prof Wallwork, now 77, was also in America in 1981 when he helped with the world’s first heart-lung transplant, at Stanford University Hospital in California.

Speaking about the operation in Cambridgeshire, he said: “The onus was on us to get it right.

“We’d done our homework and I’d done heart-lung transplants myself before in America.”

He said that after surgery Ms Barber “got back to leading her normal life, she got back to looking after her daughter, she got back to working as a childcare assistant, she lived 10 years following that transplant”.

“I think to see people who had very poor quality of life or indeed no life to look forward to actually leading a good normal life is just a great thrill.”

Prof Wallwork retired as chairman of the now Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge earlier this year, and spoke to ITV News Anglia at length for an exclusive interview on ITVX.

Prof John Wallwork performing a transplant operation in the 1980s. Credit: Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

Theatre scrub nurse Celia Hyde, who was there for Ms Barber’s transplant, said: “It was such a privilege to be there, to actually see what was going on, to see that empty chest and then to hear that the patient was breathing, speaking and things a few days later."

The 68-year-old cared for Ms Barber after her operation.

She said: “I think people forget it’s the simple things. It’s like being able to dress yourself, it’s being able to talk and laugh.

“Those are the things that are crucial for us to be happy human beings and I think Brenda went into life thinking ‘I’m a mother, I want to do all of these things’, and she did that with her daughter.”

Around 360 heart-lung transplants have been carried out at the hospital since then.

Prof John Wallwork, a transplant surgeon at Papworth Hospital. Credit: Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

Prof Wallwork also led Tineke Dixon's surgery in 1988 at Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he was helping train surgeons.

Now 51, Ms Dixon from Exmouth in Devon is one of the longest-surviving patients.

The project manager said she had been struggling to walk, was blue and pale and “basically losing my life”.

She has since gone on to enjoy sailing and skydiving.

She said it was “so lovely” to be reunited with the medical team.

“It just feels like the right moment to say ‘we’ve done some amazing things in the last 40 years’,” she said.

Two of the longest surviving heart-lung transplant patients Tineke Dixon (left) and Katie Mitchell (right) with surgeon Prof John Wallwork. Credit: PA

College student Freya Potter, from near Salisbury in Wiltshire, had a heart-lung transplant at Royal Papworth Hospital on her 17th birthday in 2022.

She said it was “quite inspiring” to meet other heart-lung patients at the reunion.

“I’m quite worried about how long my transplant will last,” she said.

“But seeing people 30 years on really makes me think that it will actually be OK and I will last longer than I think.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know