Italian surgeons, while operating on a 60-year-old woman, have discovered a perfectly functioning  artificial mitral valve implanted by heart transplant pioneer, Prof Chris Barnard, in Cape Town almost 50 years’ ago. 

According to a statement by the San Giovanni di Dio e Ruggi d’Aragona hospital, in Salerno, the prosthetic valve was implanted by Barnard in 1969 at Groote Schuur Hospital.

The Guardian has reported that, in 1964, when the woman was five, doctors diagnosed a serious mitral valve anomaly. Five years later, in 1969, family members suggested she travel to South Africa for the life-saving surgery. 

At the time, there was no other hospital where the life-saving intervention could be performed, according to the Italian hospital’s statement. She was accompanied to Cape Town by her 25-year-old brother “to an unknown place to most and where they didn’t even understand a word”, the hospital said. Following the implant by Barnard, the child spent four months at Groote Schuur recovering. 

During recent surgery on the now 60-year-old woman, surgeons discovered the valve still in perfect working order. Since then, The Guardian reported, the doctors have said that they have found no record of an older functioning valve. 

The Salermo surgeons were reportedly thrilled with their discovery, which they described as being almost “archaeological” in significance: “A very important piece of the history of world medicine has passed through the hands of heart surgeons of the AOU San Giovanni di Dio and Ruggi d’Aragona of Salerno: a cardiac prosthesis implanted by Christiaan Barnard,” the hospital said.