VA History Tidbit – 1st Heart Transplant at VA

image003Forty-seven (47) years ago, on June 3, 1969, the first heart transplant operation in a VA hospital took place at Palo Alto, California. This was exactly 18 months after the first human-to-human heart transplant operation in the world was performed by Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa.

Dr. William W. Angell, chief of cardiovascular surgery for the Palo Alto VA hospital at the time, was surgeon for the operation. Dr. Angell had been involved with Dr. Norman Shumway’s pioneering heart transplant research at Stanford University and was part of the team that performed the first U.S. human-to-human heart transplant there in January 1968. Dr. Shumway is often referred to as America’s “father of heart transplantation.” Dr. Angell co-authored numerous journal articles with Dr. Shumway during that exciting period in U.S. medical history.

Donald H. Hallbeck, a 54 year old World War II veteran, was VA’s first heart transplant recipient. Mr. Halleck was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on July 7, 1914, and served in the Army as a locomotive engineer instructor from 1943-1946. He was honorably discharged on August 15, 1946 at the rank of private. He made his home in California after the war and worked as a carpenter. In 1969 he was retired and had plans to marry his fiancé, waitress Shawnee Pavlik, that summer but postponed the wedding to have the transplant instead.

During the 4-hour operation, Mr. Halleck received the heart of a 21-year old Vietnam War veteran who was killed in a San Jose traffic accident. Donald Halleck made good progress until the third week of recovery when his body began to reject his new heart. He died from a rejection reaction on July 13, 1969 and was later buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Since then, anti-rejection drugs have significantly improved and the number of side effects and deaths from transplants have declined. Thousands of lives have been saved because of organ transplants and the number of individuals seeking them continues to grow. Roughly 4,000 heart transplants are performed annually in private and government hospitals across the U.S.

Palo Alto VA Medical Center continues to serve as a leading organ transplant center for the nation’s military veterans. Since 1969, additional VA facilities have been designated as transplant centers to provide that valuable service. Several doctors, including Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Szabolcs Szentpetery, who were aligned with early transplant efforts at key U.S. medical schools, brought their expertise to VA to improve the lives of veterans and educate the next generation of doctors.

VA Historian


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