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The story of a photo…

The doctor who woke up next to his patient after 23 hours of surgery.
The National Geographic Photo That Moved the World…


In 1987, photographer James Stanfield was in Poland looking to find the perfect photograph, which would depict the decline of the country’s medical sector. He walked to the hospital until he spotted the anxious eyes of a cardiologist. His name was Zbiniev Religa and he was the man who performed the first heart transplant in the country, in 1985. He had studied abroad, where he worked for many years, before returning to Poland, to take over the management of the heart surgery clinic in Zabrze. On August 4, 1987, Religa called his patient, Tadeusz Zitkevic, and informed him that the heart they had been waiting for had been found. Zitkevic was 61 years old and no doctor agreed to operate on him, until Religa. The risk was high due to his age and there was not much hope of recovery.

He was operating for 23 hours when he was spotted by photographer Stanfield. His assistant was sleeping in the corner of the room. Religa, however, stayed awake and watched Zitkevich’s progress on the monitor provided by the Polish government over the past decade. The next day, patient Zitkevic woke up feeling partridge. The heart was pounding and Dr. Religa had successfully completed the second heart transplant in Poland. Stanfield’s photo appeared in National Geographic magazine and became one of the most famous images in the world. Religa continued his career, first as a professor and then as Minister of Health in the governments of Kazimierz Martsinkevich in 2005 and Jiroslav Kaczynski in 2006. Zitkevich, after the transplant, returned to his job as a history teacher and decided to finally obtain a driver’s license. At the age of 61, he was starting his life for the second time….

In 2009, the doctor who saved his life died of lung cancer. Religa, 70, has been a manic smoker for 50 years. Zitkevic, 83, attended the funeral, as did photographer Stanfield. Later, Zitkevic was photographed holding the famous photo, where the forgiven doctor was watching by his bed.


Zitkevic is 88 years old, lives in Warsaw and founded the Heart Transplant Association, in honor of the adventure he lived….

We caught this post on the Time Machine blog on May 2, 2014.