The extraordinary race to transplant the first human heart.

Essential Book Information

“Every second counts” was written by Donald McRae, the author of 6 award winning non-fictional books. Donald McRae is an award-winning journalist who was born near Johannesburg and has since 1984 been based in London.

Basic Plot Summary

Every Second Counts brings you the story of four men locked in a race to transplant the first human heart. As most people know, Christiaan Barnard won this race, a stunning achievement at the time but he was not alone in this pursuit. This true story recounts the fierce struggle fought between Christiaan Barnard, Adrian Kantrowitz, Norman Shumway and Richard Lower, all giants in this field. Some of these men were friends, some of them were enemies but only one would be the first and the race was a lot closer than anyone would expect.


I started this book with the same perception most medical students, doctors and surgeons would, know that Christiaan Barnard was the first surgeons successful in transplanting a human heart. My perception was that he would therefore have been the best surgeon at that time. It was news to me that there was in fact three other surgeons mere days away from claiming the title and that Christiaan Barnard was in thought to be a longshot to earn the honor compared to the work and research the other surgeons put in.

This book was written in the styles of two genres, which made it a very enticing read. It was written as a historical biography as well as a gripping suspense driven novel. The book was well written as was expected from the caliber of writer the author is said to be. The portrayals of the surgeons were very well thought out and completely unbiased. One can also see that the book was very well researched with even the personality types of the surgeons matching, the author even recounted the medical procedures performed as well as the research each surgeons did and how their animal studies went.

In the present day and age heart transplants have become a common staple in the medical profession, 2500 heart transplants take place a year in the United States with an 89% survival rate in the first year. While reading this book I realized how much of a “miracle” the first heart transplant really was and what a big impact it had on the future of medicine.

In Every Second Counts we can also learn a lot from Christiaan Barnard, he was a risk taker and it payed of in the end. One should also consider the fact that Christiaan Barnard had some advantages for example the fact that in Cape Town, South Africa there were less restrictive laws that allowed him to take a beating heart from a brain-dead patient, whereas in the US at that time brain death still needed to be legally recognized.

I especially enjoyed all the DRAMA involved with this momentous achievement, I enjoyed reading about all the goings on around this one event and how close it really was. This also made me realize that “winning matters” was true especially in the fact that everyone remembers Christiaan Barnard but nobody knows the other three surgeons involved. Those three surgeons had such a big impact on the final surgery that we as a society should look into acknowledging and celebrating more than just the winner in many situations.

My only negative about this incredible book is the fact that it is slow to start and very technical which might make it a bit of a difficult read for non-medical readers.


I would recommend this book to all Health professionals and avid readers. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written and well-researched suspense driven book. I would also recommend this book to any medical student or junior surgeon struggling to find the motivation to continue studying, it’ll give them a massive boost of motivation and reignite a spark for medicine.

Review compiled by Jomarie Weyers