Sir Magdi Yacoub, the heart surgery pioneer, is truly an inspiring personality. Apart from the amazing advances he has made in the field, he has the unique qualities that make for true greatness, which means that his genius is tempered by incredible humility and an infinite drive to serve others. His life’s mission is to save as many lives as possible, particularly children’s lives, all around the world. eniGma’s Mahmoud Al Badry had the privilege to sit down with the Egyptian pioneer to find out more about the path that led to his exceptional accomplishments, his charitable endeavours, and what still lies ahead.
The son of an Egyptian surgeon, Yacoub decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps after his aunt passed away from a coronary infraction during his early 20s. He earned his medical degree in Egypt, then moved to London for a position at Harefield Hospital, where he was able to pursue his passion for innovation in the field. After helping launch the hospital’s transplant program in 1980, he went on to perform more transplant surgeries than any other doctor in the world, introducing several new surgical methods in the process.
By the end of the decade, Yacoub and his team had performed over 1000 successful operations, including the UK’s first ever heart and lung transplant in 1983, and Harefield Hospital had become one of the world’s top transplant centers. In fact, one of Yacoub’s patients has officially been recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest surviving heart transplant patient in history for living a fruitful life 34 years and counting after his surgery. For his incalculable accomplishments, Yacoub has garnished a myriad awards throughout his esteemed career, highlights of which include being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1992, and receiving Egypt’s highest honor, the Order of the Nile for Science and Humanity in 2011. In 2014, Yacoub also became the only Egyptian ever to be awarded the UK’s extremely exclusive Order of Merit, an honor bestowed on only 24 living personalities worldwide.
Throughout his work, despite his huge professional satisfaction, Yacoub was concerned that state of the art surgeries and medical advancements were, in fact, benefitting “only 15 to 20 percent of the world’s general population.” In an effort to counter such inequality, Yacoub founded Chain of Hope in 1994, a charity aimed at providing underprivileged children born with heart defects with access to corrective surgery and treatments that could save their lives. As Yacoub affirms, “the world we live in is split into two groups, those that have and those that don’t. Chain of Hope was created to address the dreadfully unacceptable inequality throughout the world. We are present in nine neglected areas all over the world, mainly in Africa, but also in Central America and parts of Europe, to provide needed treatments. There are statistics that show that there should be at least one heart surgeon available for every one and a half to two million people in any society. In Africa, however, the rate could be as bad as one heart surgeon to 100 million people.” These flabbergasting statistics have been the impetus behind Yacoub’s work during the last two decades. In his eyes, diagnosing an illness means nothing if no treatment is implemented to cure it.
Indeed, Yacoub’s passion for providing care to those in need later led him to establish the Aswan Heart Center in 2009. The center was built with a clear goal of providing the very best medical services available to an often forgotten region of his homeland. “Aswan and Upper Egypt have always been neglected,” he asserts. “By the time patients arrived in Cairo, they were always in a very sorry state. The charity was established to provide an advanced health center in an area where it is most needed.” As is the case with Chain of Hope, Yacoub paid a great deal of attention to the Aswan Heart Center’s sustainability to ensure that it remains a fully functioning entity for decades to come. This has been manifested in the hiring of nurses, specialists, and doctors at the highest level, and providing them with the best tools to oversee the day to day operations in Aswan.
To him, a successful present is one that has the future firmly in its sights. And in science, that can only be achieved through rigorous probing for further advancements. In fact, Yacoub goes as far as saying that research is the core of the charity. “People often think that research is an icing on the cake. It’s not a luxury, though; it’s a necessity. In Aswan, we have a research center dedicated to what we call personalized medicine as well as biomedical engineers and nuclear biologists that are opening up the floodgates for research within the hospital. The program is designed to have a life on its own. I could die any minute and the charity will go on,” he enthuses.
Yacoub’s firm emphasis on the future of his charities mirrors the vision that he has for the future of surgery. As a man who’s seen countless astonishing medical advances during his long career, he truly believes that the possibilities are endless. And who could really blame him? When he first started in the field, open heart surgeries were still a novelty, and successful transplants were largely considered a pipe dream.
Flash forward to today and both are considered routine, albeit understandably difficult, procedures. “Surgical specialty has progressed tremendously over the last 50 years. A lot of new operations, along with a lot of discoveries related to science and molecular biology, have been very useful to the community,” Yacoub reflects. “There is no ceiling to what we can achieve in the future. Science is progressing at an incredible rate, from skin cell biology to tissue engineering to reprogramming cells in the body. Discovery is truly limitless.”
Yacoub predicts that in the long term, surgical operations will mostly be shelved in favor of a better understanding of molecules that should theoretically allow doctors to treat their patients without having to open the body. “Surgery is a vocation; it’s an art. It is serving humanity like it has never done before, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, in the long term, I for one think that cutting the body won’t be the best method. Human tissue needs to be studied very carefully on a molecular level since that could hopefully allow us to prevent or treat diseases through noninvasive ways,” he hypothesizes.
Yacoub believes that the incredibly positive impact achieved by cardiac catheterization, a process of treating certain coronary illnesses without opening the chest, should provide all the motivation and proof needed for what a surgery-less world could be like. It doesn’t matter to him that he likely won’t be around to see this transformation become a reality. Just the idea of such progress is terribly exciting to a pioneer who has dedicated his entire life’s work to making the world a better place for humanity. Yacoub sums it up by saying, “Science is a search for truth. We’re never going to reach its fullest form. What we have nowadays is current knowledge; it is not the entire picture. We have to carry on as people and continue to seek more knowledge.”
And really, the best way to do so is through ensuring that information is shared to help others in achieving the same long-term goal of making the world become the best version of itself that it could be. “Knowledge to me is useless if I don’t pass it on. Science is a never-ending improvement process. It’s essential to leave behind a whole lot of knowledge that can help others achieve further advancements,” he effusively remarks.
Never accepting any limitation for humanity, Yacoub believes anything and everything is possible as long as we put in the time and effort to make it happen. And with over half a century worth of experience, inventions, and accolades under his belt, the cardiology expert is not resting on his laurels. His heart still yearns for more and his imagination has no bounds, as he continues to work on finding new ways to save lives. His name in the record books is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean much to him as long as there are people dying every month from cardiac illnesses. To him, life is all about rising together as humans to defeat the ailments that continue to lead to premature conclusions to unfinished stories.