Current Affairs
Female surgeon performed first world heart surgery in Malta during Great War

In January 1918, at the height of the Great War, a female surgeon wrote a new and important page in medical and surgery history when she assisted in a major heart surgery in Malta – the first of its kind. During the operation, carried out in Valletta, a bullet was removed from a soldier’s heart.

During World War One, the St Elmo primary school in Valletta was transformed into a hospital dedicated to surgeries.

It was at this hospital that British surgeon, Sarah Marguerite White, assisted surgeon Sir Charles Ballance so that together they carried out something which was never done before ….. they successfully removed a bullet which entered the heart of an English soldier.

Details of this stories were discovered by Maltese cardiologist, Norman Briffa, who works in Sheffield, England. Interviewed in the TVM programme Ras Imb Ras, he stated that with the intervention, the two surgeons surpassed the normal practice of the time because no one had dared to touch a heart.

Cardiologist Briffa said, ”and during the surgery these two surgeons without the help of the heart lung machine, which was invented in the 1950s, they managed to expose the heart, find the bullet, and remove it with very minimal blood loss which was an amazing achievement at the time.”

In his research, Mr Briffa says that the participation of a woman surgeon in such a delicate surgery was not normal. ”Very unusual. She was a civilian volunteer doctor, and she with many other female doctors was transferred to Malta to care for the sick”.

The patient was Robert Martin, a soldier in the Derbyshire Yeomanry and at the age of 20 he was already fighting in Gallipoli and Salonika. In Novembru 1917, on the day of his birthday, he was wounded by a bullet fired by a Bulgarian soldier. Despite that the operation was successful, Robert Martin died two months later due to an infection which couldn’t be controlled with anti-biotics, as these did not exist.

Cardiologist Briffa says that this story is another reason why Malta should commemorate the centenary.

”For the surgeons who were brave and who tried something new and contributed to the development of heart surgery. And lastly to remember the amazing and ennoble contribution of the country of Malta to thousands of servicemen and 20th century healthcare in general. It is a fine tradition that goes back to the Knights of Malta and continues today at Mater Dei”.

It is estimated that during the Great War some 80,000 soldiers were medically treated in Malta – the nurse of the Mediterranean.

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