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 was born near Johannesburg and has been based in London since 1984.

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 of whom were giants in the field. Some of these men were friends, some were enemies, but only one would be first.


I started this book with the same knowledge most medical students, doctors and surgeons would, knowing that Christiaan Barnard was the first surgeon successful in transplanting a human heart.

Therefore, my perception was that he would have been the best surgeon at the time. It was news to me that there were in fact three other surgeons mere days away from claiming the same title and that Christiaan Barnard was thought to be lucky to earn the honour over the other surgeons.

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 the book was very well researched, with even the personality types of the surgeons being accurate. The author recounted the medical procedures performed as well as the research each surgeons did, including their animal studies.

In this present day and age, heart transplants have become a common staple in the medical profession. 2500 heart transplants take place each year in the United States, with an 89% survival rate in the first year. While reading this book, I realised 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 off in the end. However, one should also consider that Christiaan Barnard had some advantages. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, there were fewer restrictive laws which enabled him to take a beating heart from a brain-dead patient, whereas in the United States at that time, brain death still needed to be legally recognised.

I especially enjoyed all the DRAMA involved with this momentous achievement. This made me realise that the notion that “winning matters” was true, especially since everyone remembers Christiaan Barnard, but nobody remembers the other three surgeons involved.

Those three surgeons had such a big impact on the final surgical procedure that was developed and so we should be acknowledging and celebrating more than just the winner in many situations.

My only negative about this incredible book is the fact that it was 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 will give you a massive boost of motivation and reignite a spark for medicine.

Review compiled by Jomarie Weyers, South Africa, 2020 Executive Committee: Vice-President.