Since the world renowned cardiac surgeon Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub retired from the British National Health Service (NHS) at the age of 65 he rarely makes headlines. You might imagine he is taking life easy after so many stressful decades extending people’s lives. Pursuing his passion for horticulture or spending more time with his wife Marianne and grown-up son and daughters? Not so. At the age of 73 this amazing human being is as committed to revolutionising surgery as ever, says Linda S. Heard.

If you ask any ordinary person whether they know the name of a pioneer in heart transplant surgery, there are just two names that spring to mind. The late Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first-ever transplant in 1967 and Dr. Magdi Yacoub, who has carried out more successful transplants than anyone else in the world.

Sir Magdi is credited for transforming a rather unremarkable British hospital Harefield into the world’s most acclaimed transplant centre. During his time there he was able to greatly increase post-operative survival rates. One of his patients lived 25 years after his operation. Thousands of others were enabled to add decades to their lives that were once ebbing away. When NHS rules forced him to retire, the British public was outraged. Soon afterward Harefield was subsumed into a large London hospital.

Today, he is a Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the British National Heart and Lung Institute, a division of London’s Imperial College, but much of his time is spent on charitable work and research on growing heart tissue from stem cells.In 2007 a research team he headed managed to produce a part of a human heart using stem-cell technology, a breakthrough that may be able to bring relief to hundreds of thousands of seriously ill people. Clinical trials are currently underway. Growing brand new hearts has now become a very real possibility. “It’s an ambitious project but not impossible,” said Dr. Magdi. “If you want me to guess I’d say 10 years.”

Close to his own heart is the Chain of Hope, a charity he founded in 1995 to provide children suffering from life-threatening disease with corrective surgery and treatment to which they do not normally have access. He was motivated to get involved by his early years in Egypt. “As a young resident in Egypt I watched children, who had been on the brink of death from heart conditions, recover after corrective surgery. That fuelled my desire to make this an option to as many people as possible especially in countries where there is so much suffering,” he explains.

As well as flying in sick children from impoverished or war ravaged countries the charity also organises missions abroad. In recent years, such overseas projects have helped 15 year-old youngsters in Brazil, Jamaica, Kenya, Mozambique and Panama as well as in Dr. Magdi’s homeland Egypt. It’s not surprising that he regularly visits his native land but it is admirable that he gives so much of his precious time to treating children with heart disease without payment.

For many poor Egyptian families Dr. Magdi is their last hope. They journey miles from tiny out-of-the-way villages and queue for hours for a consultation with Chain of Hope cardiologists responsible for assessing whether their child is a candidate for surgery. Most are suffering from defective heart valve or holes in the heart, which in advanced countries are easily and automatically corrected soon after a “blue baby” is born. In Egypt, however, many of these babies grow to be teenagers without ever receiving treatment which inevitably means they have a diminished quality of life and a shortened lifespan.

The most heartbreaking part of the Chain of Hope’s mission is being obliged to gently turn away parents whose child’s condition is too far advanced to benefit from Dr. Magdi’s healing hands. It’s no wonder that this extraordinary talented and kind person has been showered with accolades from a British knighthood to the Golden Hippocrates International Award and a Gold Medal from the European Society of Cardiology. Not bad for someone who began life in a tiny Egyptian village. Yet, according to everyone who knows him success hasn’t gone to his head.

He is known for his humility, approachability, calm personality and for his ability to put patients at ease. A workaholic, who thinks nothing of putting in 100 hours a week, there have been times when he has had to be creative. In Egypt, everyone from a doorman to a judge knows of Dr. Magdi Yacoub. He left his country of birth in 1962 to be embraced by Britain, but that doesn’t prevent the Egyptian people claiming him as their own king of hearts.

One of his best known patients and friends, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, explained the feeling succinctly. “When you come from a place like Egypt, the whole country loves you if you become famous. When I kissed Sophia Loren, they all think they kissed Sophia Loren too. When Magdi was knighted, the Egyptians were kneeling next to him.”

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