His own heart is not beating anymore, but the heart of the man whom he had saved is working without any problems. Polish Zbigniew Religa heart surgeon and his patient Tadeusz Zitkevits have a really unique link, as we see in the picture by the “National Geographic”.
The watchful eye of a doctor, next to his patient, even after 23 hours of surgery, thrilled those who saw it and those who rightly decided to include the photo in the list of 100 best photographs published in history of the magazine.
Today the doctor is no longer alive, but his patient cared enough to remind us this amazing story.
It was just a difficult surgery. It was an impossible operation. Yet, the Polish surgeon Zbigniew Religa decided to take over. The scientist who in 1985 performed the first heart transplant surgery in Poland, as Head of Cardiovascular Surgery Clinic in Zabrze, wanted to take personal salvation of the 61 year old man, Tadeusz Zitkevits, whom no doctor agreed to perform the surgery because of his advanced age.
It was in August 1987 when the suitable graft was found. Without wasting time, Religa informed the patient that the surgery was scheduled immediately. At the end of that day, the above photography was taken by the American photographer James Lee Stanfilnt. «National Geographic» was seeking a photo illustrating the decline in health sector in U.S.A. after the end of Cold War.
After 23 hours in the operating room, staff shortages and sophisticated machinery, sleepless Religa stood guard beside his patient, anxiously watching the progress of his health on the monitors that were connected.
Stanfilnt did not focus only on the restless dedicated doctor and his patient, who was struggling to stay alive with the help of outdated machines and technology, but he included the depleted assistant surgeon, who could not stand and fall asleep in a corner of the operating theater.
“In this era you need more than just a nice picture. You need information and elements that add dimension and drama to the photo and helps narrate a story.” The story in this case had a happy ending. The next day, the patient recovered and was feeling healthier than ever. Religa sighed with relief, after the second heart transplant was completed successfully.
Nobody thought that Religa’s heart would betray him first. The Polish surgeon excelled in the field of transplantation in the ’90s, and in 2004 he was awarded for the development of an implantable pump to support cardiac function.
The maniac smoker who served as Minister of Health
Alongside with the scientific activity, Religa chased a career in politics too. He arrived in 2005 to run in the presidential elections. Although he lost, he remained at the forefront, serving Health Minister of Poland from 2005 until 2007. He had not the opportunity to be a candidate in elections again, after his 2009 event where lung cancer was the reason to prematurely cut the thread of life. Although he knew as a doctor about the dangers of smoking cigarettes, he was a maniac who declared he didn’t want to quit. When the disease was detected, it was already at a very advanced stage.
The funeral was held at the cemetery for non Catholics as Religa was declared atheist and was broadcasted live on television. Both the photographer and the 88 year old Zitkevits Tadeusz were there. Zitkevits was holding a photo with the surgery, the doctor-hero at himself side by side, as an amulet.