Zbigniew Religa after a 23 hour heart transplant, watching his patient’s vital signs. Image via National Geographic.

National Geographic chose this as the best picture of 1987, and for good reason. Here, we see Dr. Zbigniew Religa keeping watch on the vital signs of a patient after a 23 hour heart surgery he conducted. In the lower right corner, you can see one of his colleagues who helped him with the surgery fallen asleep. 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. Today, even though Dr. Religa’s heart has stopped beating, the one of his patient is still running.

Zbigniew Religa conducted 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. In parallel to being a surgeon he also had a successful political carreer, though outside Poland he is still chiefly known for his medical achievements. In 1993, he became a member of the Polish senate and was re-elected in 2001. He was a promising candidate in the 2005 Polish presidential elections; even as he backed out of the presidential race with only 6% of the votes, he earned significant respect from the Polish population.

In 1987, the proposed heart transplant procedure received the green light, and Religa didn’t waste a single moment. The surgery was extremely demanding, lasting 23 hours, at the end of which Religa was photographed looking at his patient’s vital signs. The angst and fatigue really transcend the image, and the more you look at it, the more you see – everything adds a new dimension. The surgeon sleeping in the corner, the bloody mess, the myriad of cables… I just don’t get tired of looking at it. But when James Stansfield took this picture, he didn’t just tell a story of a surgery – in a way, he changed the world.

Tadeusz Zitkevits, the patient who received the heart transplant, 25 years after the surgery. Image via National Geographic.

He showed a different side of modern medicine – he showed that it’s possible to achieve the impossible. It’s a hard, it takes a long time and it’s exhausting, but you can transplant a man’s heart and make him healthy again. The fact that his patient, Tadeusz Zitkevits, outlived Religa is only a testament of the surgery’s success.

This video is in Polish, but it’s well worth it; it captures some moments of celebration after the surgery and bits of footage from the actual surgery.

Today, heart transplants save many lives which would otherwise be doomed. While it’s not technically a cure for heart or coronary disease, heart transplants typically have very good survival rates. It’s thanks to very talented and caring doctors like Zbigniew Religa that this is possible today; and it’s thanks to photographers like James Stansfield that we can truly admire their work.

Like us on Facebook
The future is now! Join the newsletter and learn why.
ZME Science newsletter
Blasts off every weekday to more than 35,000 subscribers.

You Might Also Like


  1. 1
  2. 2

    Check the movie “Bogowie” – starring Tomasz Kot as prof. Religa.
    Link here: http://www.filmweb.pl/film/Bogowie-2014-694378

  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5

    No, The first try of heart transplant was made by prof. Moll, but unsuccesfull. It was in 1969!!! Just few months after first transplant in the world.
    Anyway the movie Bogowie is amasing.

  6. 6

    3 December 1967, South African doctor, Dr Christiaan (Chris) Barnard,
    performed the world’s first human to human heart transplant at Groote
    Schuur Hospital, Cape Town. – See more at:

  7. 7

    Even better results…


  8. 8

    I guess no one pays attention to what they read. Article clearly states that it’s 1st successful heart transplant in POLAND! Not in world or ever!

  9. 10
  10. 12

    How the heck can you guys be commenting everything, except of the fact that the article mentions incorrectly the date of the first successful heart transplantation in Poland? It was 1985, not ’95

  11. 13

    Read the article again Waldek, or improve your comprehension skills. It has many grammatical errors but the date of the surgery isn’t one of them. In this article it is quoted as 1987 not 1985 like you state, secondly the reference to 1995 is in relation to his first artificial valve created from remains of human corpses. Great legacy from Zbigniew Religa for medicine. Sad however that the National Geographic image of Religa made world famous depicits Poland’s failing and outdated healthcare system reaching national crisis in the 1980’s.

  12. 14

    And it was preceeded by several unsuccessful ones, as back then people couldn’t figure out yet why is the transplantation being denied by the body. Nonethenless, introducing this art of medicine to Poland back then in time, when it was still grey and ruined by commies, to people who never heard of it and mostly believed that patient will become different person with stranger’s heart inside, and fighting with critique and failures just so our surgeons are one of best in the world now – this is worth a mention ;)

  13. 18

    It's not even the first in Poland – first polish transplantation was done at 5th November 1985 and this photo was taken 5th August 1987, after the 19th Religa's transpalantation.

  14. 19

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>