Unless you have been living under a rock, this photo should be recognisable to you; Dr Zbigniew Religa watching the vital signs of his patient, Tadeusz Żytkiewicz, after an unbelievable 23 hour heart transplant operation with his assistant, Dr Romuald Chichoń, asleep in the corner. This photo was taken in Poland, 1987, and was subsequently chosen by National Geographic as the best picture of that year. It is easy to see why; not only does it capture an incredibly significant moment in medical history, but it shows the human side of medicine; an exhausted assistant asleep in the corner, the weary look of concentration on the surgeon, the unconscious patient so vulnerable and sickly looking on the brink of death. But who was the man behind the groundbreaking surgery? What is his story, where was he from, and where is he now?
Zbigniew Religa was born on the 16th December, 1938, in a small town called Miedwienice. He was an only child, and during school he had dreams of becoming a journalist or a philosopher so, naturally, he enrolled in the Medical University of Warsaw to become a doctor. This decision led him to the United States where he partook in vital scientific research and completed training as both a cardiac and vascular surgeon.
Upon returning to Poland in 1980 he began lecturing at the Warsaw Institute of Cardiology until 1984 when he left and performed the first heart operation, and subsequently the first heart transplantation, in Poland. The patient, Tadeusz Żytkiewicz, was 61 at the time of the transplant surgery, and was refused treatment by any of the leading heart surgeons of the world. Only Dr Religa was brave enough to perform the surgery in somewhat subpar conditions, and he subsequently saved Mr Żytkiewicz’s life.
In the years 1993-2005 he served as a senator for the Polish government, having the largest number of votes in the senate with a whopping 530 000 majority. Unfortunately, in 2007 he was diagnosed with highly malignant lung cancer and after several unsuccessful operations he passed away on the 8th of March of the same year. He was 71 years old.
He is remembered throughout Poland and the world as a man of incredible integrity and skill, whose empathy was unparalleled and dedication to his patients absolute (he often referred to his patients as his most valued of friends). Whilst the photo above shows the dedication that one doctor can have for his patients, please remember the name Zbigniew Religa and all he achieved the next time this pops up on your Newsfeed, Dashboard, magazine, or television screen.
-Image via National Geographic.