scriptwriter is Christopher Wood, who wrote scripts
for two James Bond movies (Moonraker and The Spy Who
Loved Me) as well as other major films. A highly promising
young South African composer, DuPreez Strauss, has
written and produced the highly effective yet expertly
unobtrusive music for the series. Having worked here
and in the US on major musicals and other theatre productions,
he's a rising talent well worth watching.
Too much attention is paid to dramatising heart surgeons,
and too little to the bravery of the patients and families
involved. This highly skilful and gentle South African
series puts that right.
In the remarkable The Heart is Beautiful television
series, we meet the extraordinary, ordinary Gird family,
who handle threat and uncertainty with dignity and
courage. In a very rare event, two of their children
are suffering from an uncommon hereditary heart disease,
fatal unless a successful heart transplant can be carried
Melanie is 19, has been ill for years, and is steadily
deteriorating. Periodically her heart develops a serious
irregularity of rhythm, and she has to be rushed to
hospital for cardioversion - a careful electric shock
to set the rhythm right again. But the procedure has
risks, as it could be fatal in itself, and can weaken
the heart further.
Most unusually, her younger brother Trevor (15) has
the identical heart disorder, though he seems to be
fairly well when we meet him. There is obviously great
love between the pair, but he must know that as she
is now, he will be, one day.
They have been referred to one of South Africa's leading
heart surgeons, Dr Susan Vosloo of Cape Town. She works
in the Chris Barnard Memorial Hospital. She was mentored
by Barnard, she's talented and calm, a down-to-earth
surgeon who achieves astonishing things, and she's
not at all attention-seeking.
Being permanently temporary Melanie's life is greatly
constricted by her illness, even if the symptoms don't
seem dramatic - dizziness and tiredness predominate.
But she's had to hasten into hospital 40 times in the
last year for cardioversion. It's been getting worse
since she was 13, and at 15 she had major surgery to
try to reshape the right side of her heart, to improve
its function. By now, there is little useful activity
of the right side of her heart, as there is little
functional muscle left and what there is, is weak and
The family visits relatives on a farm near Paarl for
Christmas, and to see Dr Vosloo in Cape Town. She has
done 75 transplants, most frequently on children, with
excellent success rates. In a bitter example of every
cloud having a silver lining, there's a better chance
of a donor heart becoming available during the holiday
season. After the years of uncertainty and dread, the
family tries different ways of coping. Their comments
are revealing: "You never get used to it. You
just learn to handle it."; and: "I hope.
Without hope you have nothing left".
Their mother urges them to concentrate on what they
can do, and not on "bad things you can't change".
She gets awkwardly joky at times, and Melanie seems
not to appreciate this, though it's a common defence
tactic. The father tries to be strong, and little Trevor
seems overwhelmed at times, but is always loving and
Creepy prayers They know Melanie is marked as the highest
priority on the transplant list. "I pray to get
a heart every day". They seem to recognise that
this is somewhat creepy - effectively, they are praying
that someone else will die, so that she can live. Then
on December 22, they get the call they've been longing
for - a heart has been found, in George. They must
rush back to Cape Town, in hope of a transplant.
It seems odd, given her condition, that we see her
getting on and off the plane with no sign of a wheelchair
or lift to the cabin door. She seems eager, and shows
no fear of surgery, but her only alternative is early
death. It's a delicate dance that's required.
Once a potential heart has been identified, permission
must be got from the family, the donor chest opened
- and then if the condition of the heart is satisfactory,
it must be chilled, removed and rapidly transplanted
to the recipient, within a narrow time window of four
hours. Beyond that and it won't be viable. Surgery
will have to start on the recipient, her heart must
be removed and replaced with the donor organ once it
arrives. Timing is extremely critical.
The potential donor is a young woman, brain dead after
a motorbike accident, but there's been chest and lung
damage, too, which is a concern. Dr Otto Thanning of
the transplant team decides, after inspecting this
heart, not to proceed - it is not in a satisfactory
Euphemisms and eggshells This is enormously disappointing
news for Melanie and the Girds; but as is gently pointed
out, it's better than the disappointment of proceeding
with an unsatisfactory organ, and losing the patient. "The
right thing will happen at the right time," the
family decides, comforting themselves. Just as we avoid
looking directly into the sun, so everyone talks frankly
but cautiously of "bad outcome", rather than
They just have to wait, and try to be patient. But
they're in luck. Amazingly, within days, a second heart
has been found, also in George. The surgical teams
go to work, in both hospitals, with energetic scrubbing
of hands to get everything surgically sterile.
As they open up in George, the new heart looks beautiful.
A healthy purple muscle, a little yellow fat, and beating
strongly. There's the paradox of the donor - brain
dead, but with a living heart. It is harvested, deeply
chilled to slow its metabolism, and packed for transport
to Cape Town. There's worry about bad weather - a heart
delayed is a heart wasted, and if the recipient's heart
has deteriorated, the patient may not survive the wait
But they're in luck again, and as it arrives, the transplant
The series has been made with care by talented producers/directors
Jan Groenewald and Pieter de Vos. Their clear sensitivity
and affection for the subjects of the series mean they
were obviously trusted and allowed special access.