Valve of salvation - animal hearts save human lives

It is a ground-breaking, and heart-fixing, new procedure. Russian surgeons have thrown a lifeline to a young girl, providing her with a unique transplant with a valve from a pig's heart, in the first operation of its kind.

Her only chance for survival: a renowned surgeon is implanting a ground-breaking modified valve made from a pig's heart into the chest of 24-year-old Natalya Blagodatskikh, who has a rare and life-threatening heart defect. 

The valve, adapted by Russian surgeons, has never been used before. After three hours, the operation is complete.

“The operation itself is a success,” heart surgeon Leo Bokeria said after the surgery was performed. “We need some time to see how the patient recovers, but in any case her life before was unbearable.”

Natalya's implant came from a farm outside of Moscow. Earlier, surgeons had to sort through hundreds of pigs' and cows' hearts to find one that could be used for a valve. As it was almost impossible to find the right donor for the new model, they found a tailor-made solution.

There are only a handful of farms in Russia which raise potential donor animals.

At one specialized farm near Moscow, each cow is matched to a particular patient, who is on a waiting-list in Moscow. From its birth, the animal’s diet and every single part of its lifestyle are carefully monitored so, when the time comes, it becomes the perfect donor.

The owner of the farm, Aleksandr Konovalov, was a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, but two years ago, he sold all of his businesses and retired to the countryside to create the most ecologically-sustainable farm possible. He gives away his animals' hearts for nothing.

“We are just so proud we are helping to save lives,” he said. “I never thought I would be doing this!”

Once the heart is removed from the animal, it is taken to a special hospital lab. Here it is sterilized, and all the parts of the valve are sewn together. Biological valves are often superior to traditional mechanical models and do not require the patient to take drugs for the rest of his or her life. The lab’s director, Natalya Bakuleva, is hoping more successful implants will encourage health authorities to invest more funds in them.

“There are only two or three producers of biological valves in the whole of Russia and it is not enough. Right now people here die before they can get their treatment,” she said.

Two weeks have passed, and Natalya Blagodatskikh is out of the emergency ward.

“I feel wonderful. I feel like I have a life. I plan to return to my job, and I want to have children,” she says.

Doctors say that Natalya should be completely healthy in six months and hope she will be the first of thousands to receive the life-saving transplant.