At the first transplant he was immensely excited. "I had so much respect," he really trembled, says Bruno Reichart. The operation was a success. The patient in whom he implanted a heart more than 40 years ago in Munich lived for 26 years. More than 1000 hearts were then transplanted under Reichart's direction. In 1983 he succeeded in the first heart-lung transplant in Germany, in 1997 he transplanted the heart, lungs and liver for the first time in Europe - milestones.
Reichart turns 80 on Wednesday - and is working with a team in Munich towards a new goal: the transplantation of pig hearts to replace missing human organs. The "Abendzeitung" had first reported on Reichart and the birthday.
Not just taking things for granted, but looking for a solution: that was always what drove him, he says today. "I never wanted to be first, but I wanted to be among the best." Success is always a team thing: "Surgeons are craftsmen. You need the help of others."
Active even after retirement
Reichart put the scalpel aside years ago and is still active in research. After his retirement in 2011, he continued, among other things, to improve the medication against the rejection reaction and methods to keep the heart to be transplanted fresh, for example by means of cooling and nutrient solution. "I've always tried to improve techniques."
However, the focus of his work is xenotransplantation, the transfer of organs from animals to humans, which he has been working on for around 30 years. When the patient died two months after the world's first pig heart transplant in the USA a year ago, Reichart still rated the procedure as a success. "The patient was too ill."
In Munich, he and the team of surgeons and veterinarians see the chance of a first xenotransplantation in two years. "We're in the final phase. We've tried everything - except for our own pigs." Small animals from New Zealand were genetically modified for this purpose. "But there is still an important building block that is being worked on." Although he will no longer operate himself. "Others will do it. But I would like to be there."
Surgery successful - patient dead
Reichert, born on January 18, 1943 in Vienna, studied medicine in Munich and Erlangen. In 1971 he became an assistant to the surgeon Rudolf Zenker, who transplanted the first heart in Germany on February 13, 1969. The patient was dead 27 hours later. A good year earlier, Christiaan Barnard had transplanted the world's first heart in Cape Town, South Africa, and the patient survived 18 days.
Cardiac surgery was an exotic subject in the early 1970s, and the mortality rate among patients was high - not something he wanted to do, says Reichart. He ended up there more by accident and as a result of emotional decisions: First he was ordered into cardiac surgery because a colleague broke his leg. Then, without much thought, he accepted an offer to go to Memphis because it's on the Mississippi River and because he was a kid fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He later studied at Stanford with surgeon Norman Shumway. The transplant surgery was initially his "private pleasure," says Reichart, who succeeded Barnard in Cape Town in the 1980s.
In 1990 Reichart returned to the University Hospital in Munich. There he was the first in Europe to put a fully implantable partial artificial heart in a man to bridge the waiting time for a transplant. Another highlight was the first heart-lung-liver transplant in 1997. The patient survived twelve years.
Reichart often spent his birthdays in the operating theatre. Even now he doesn't care about a big party. Celebrated in the closest family circle. "That's enough for me." But since he is an honorary citizen of the city of Munich, he will not be able to avoid an official celebration. And his employees "insisted" on organizing a birthday symposium for him.