Amidst a tangle of wires, Dr. Zbigniew Religa anxiously watches a screen to see how his patient responds after a heart transplant. In the lower right corner, you can see one of his colleagues who helped him with the surgery fallen asleep. The surgery lasted for 23 hours.
Dr. Religa was a pioneer of heart transplantation in Poland, and even though the surgery was considered borderline impossible at the time, he took the chance, and the operation was entirely successful. The patient was Tadeusz Żytkiewicz, who died in 2017 – 30 years since the operation, outliving the man who gave him a new heart.
James Stanfield took this photo in 1987 while covering Poland’s failing and outdated free healthcare system that was reaching a state of national crisis in the 1980s. The photograph was selected as the photo of 1987 by the ‘National Geographic’ and was listed among the 100 most important photos in history.
Religa finished his studies at the Medical University of Warsaw in 1963. From 1966 to 1980 he worked in the Szpital Wolski in Warsaw, where he qualified in surgery. In 1973, he visited New York City to train in vascular surgery, and in 1975 he trained in cardiac surgery in Detroit.
In 1973, he obtained a Ph. D. degree; in 1981 he finished his habilitation, achieving academic recognition. From 1980 to 1984, Religa lectured at the Warsaw Institute of Cardiology. In 1984 he obtained a chair in cardiac surgery and directed the Cardiosurgical Clinic in Zabrze.
A pioneer in human heart transplantation in Poland, he led the team that performed the first successful heart transplantation in the country, and in June 1995 he was the first surgeon to graft an artificial valve created from materials taken from human corpses.
Dr. Zbigniew Religa was a heavy smoker, and on March 8, 2009, died from lung cancer. The funeral was held at the cemetery for non-Catholics because Religa was an atheist. His funeral was broadcasted live on television. The photographer that took the picture and his patient Zitkevits Tadeusz were both present at the funeral. His 88-year-old patient was holding the photo taken that day throughout the whole funeral.
(Photo credit: James L. Stanfield).