Worlds first Cow heart transplant recipient shares his experience

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The first person to have a cow heart transplant while conscious described the experience as “Star Wars-like.”

John Smallwood, a retired paramedic and Territorial Army veteran, had previously undergone a heart operation.


When his heart stopped working, however, the 74-year-old was advised that standard surgery was no longer an option.

After great debate, John decided to participate in a groundbreaking heart valve replacement procedure.

Cow Heart Transplant Recipient Says World First Procedure Was Like Star Wars
Cow Heart Transplant Recipient Says World First Procedure Was Like Star Wars (Warren Manger)

John had an open heart surgery approximately nine years ago due to a leaky mitral valve. He fell quite weak after that and hardly had any energy left. He would also get very tired real soon while doing minor tasks such as chit chatting on the phone.

John was left wondering ‘how much longer [he] had left,’ as well as who would look after his crippled wife Carol.

Nishant Gangil, the operation’s leader and a coronary and structural interventional cardiologist, described how John appeared to have “lost hope and accepted his fate.”

While regular surgery ‘wasn’t an option,’ Gangil informed the 74-year-old of a ‘new technique,’ in which valves would be put ‘via the groyne.’ However, he cautioned that the procedure would be “more complex” than the aortic valve replacement surgeries that have been performed since 2007.

A specially bred cow’s heart was prepared for the transplant because the 74-year-old needed two new valves.

At University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, John underwent a two-hour procedure.

However, due to his heart failure, he was needed to remain awake during the procedure rather than having it done under general anaesthesia.

John was told traditional surgery was no longer an option because of his heart failure, but that he was a suitable candidate for a new pioneering treatment. Credit: Alamy

He was in danger of dying if he moved even a fraction of an inch.

“We had to make a hole in his heart with a special needle and deliver the second valve through it. Only a few of these cases have been completed globally. And we were planning to do it while John was still awake, under local anaesthesia “Gangil clarified.

Despite being “a little jittery” about the procedure at first, John opted to get it last September after discussing it with his family.

The 74-year-old was talked through the procedure at every stage, according to Gangil, so he didn’t ‘become concerned’ about how long it took.

The sight of ’15 or so [doctors] outside [the theatre] and another five or six with the team inside’ astounded John.

Gangil, on the other hand, praised John for being “extremely bold” and cooperative. The surgeon remarked, “[John’s] mental strength helped him come through something that was pretty exceptional.”

John stated, ” “It looked like something from a Star Wars movie. I consider myself quite fortunate to have undergone this procedure.”

All of the doctors are ‘ecstatic,’ according to Gangil, with John able to ‘walk up and down the ward a few times’ just hours after the operation.

“I can’t believe how much better I feel today,” John concluded. It’s as if I’ve been resurrected. I can now do everything I couldn’t previously, including caring for my wife, changing the bed, going for walks, and shopping. I haven’t felt like this since I was in my late thirties.

“Like the first heart transplant, it’s a huge stride forward.” Hopefully, it will pave the way for others like me who have been considered too dangerous for open heart surgery or general anaesthesia.”


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