Egyptian-British surgeon Magdi Yacoub flies ‘like a butterfly’ but is still busy as can be

The 87-year-old was recently appointed honorary chancellor of the British University in Egypt and his foundation will soon open heart centres in Cairo and Kigali, Rwanda

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Renowned Egyptian-British heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, 87, made his mark a long time ago.

In 1980, he established what was to become one of the world’s largest and most successful heart transplant units, at Harefield Hospital in west London; in 1983, he performed the UK’s first combined heart and lung transplant; in 1992, he was knighted; and in 2014, he was awarded the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.

But that is just the shortlist and most recently he became honorary chancellor of the British University in Egypt (BUE).

As a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Imperial College London for 20 years, Prof Yacoub was also lecturing, researching, publishing and mentoring.

He has founded several charities, starting with Chain of Hope in 1995, which treats children in developing countries who have life-threatening heart conditions. The Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation’s Aswan centre has earned him an affectionate nickname, Egypt’s King of Hearts.

“Now … I’m like a butterfly, who flies in between all of these things”, Prof Yacoub tells The National.

“I almost work harder, although obviously, my energy is not the same. I used to not sleep for two or three nights and read all the journals and come back in the morning. But I still sleep four hours or so and wake up in the night,” he says.

He says he still wants to address healthcare inequality, chase a cure for heart failure and pass on the baton to the next generation in every way he can.

The BUE is a private institution that was formally inaugurated in 2006 by King Charles, who was Prince of Wales at the time, and Egypt’s former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak.

“I was there at its birth,” says Prof Yacoub, who is also a member of the university’s board of trustees. “I accepted [the role] because I identify with what they’re doing for young people, for the country, for the world … but also university life and its values are very important to me.”

The enthusiasm with which Prof Yacoub mentors young people stems from an appreciation of the influence of his own mentors, starting with his surgeon father, Habib Yacoub.

Prof Yacoub was born in 1935 in Bilbeis, a town in the Nile Delta about 60km north-east of Cairo, to a Coptic Christian family. He spent his childhood moving around Egypt due to his father’s profession.

Both his father and the death of his aunt from uncorrected mitral stenosis (a narrowing of the heart valve) inspired him to study medicine and cardiology.

After graduating in medicine from Cairo University in 1957, in the early 1960s he moved to the UK for further training.

He worked under the late British chest and heart surgeon Lord Russell Brock, one of the pioneers of modern open-heart surgery.

“I knew of him before I ever came to the UK and I targeted him as a young boy,” Prof Yacoub says. “I learnt so much from him on how to think, how to be a better cardiologist than anybody, how to make decisions for yourself.”

Prof Yacoub’s early work includes repairing heart valves with the late South African-born British cardiothoracic surgeon Donald Ross. He adapted the Ross Procedure, where the diseased aortic valve is replaced with the person’s own pulmonary valve.

A job rejection from the Royal Brompton Hospital prompted him to move to the US in 1968, where he became an assistant professor at the University of Chicago for a year. He was “extremely disappointed and upset” at the time, but “in the long run, it was the best thing that happened to me”, Prof Yacoub says.

“Although I was bent on having the job at the Royal Brompton, which was a huge hospital, it was actually so much better for me to come back to a peripheral hospital because I was allowed to do what I wanted and I was more creative,” he says.

He became a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Harefield Hospital in Uxbridge in 1969 and immediately shook up the place.

“When I was appointed as the only heart surgeon there and they were doing one case every week, sometimes one open-heart every two weeks, I said, 'no, no, we’re going to do nine to 13 every week',” Prof Yacoub says. “They said, 'you’re not serious.' I said 'I am serious'.”

He went on to become the founder and director at Harefield’s Heart Science Centre, and was also a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Royal Brompton from 1986 until his retirement from National Health Services practice in 2001 at the age of 65.

Over the course of his career, Prof Yacoub has performed more than 40,000 open heart surgeries and conducted more than 2,000 heart transplants.

From 1986 to 2006, he held the position of British Heart Foundation professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Imperial College, where he supervised more than 20 higher-degree students.

He credits other mentors along his journey as well, such as the late Sir Peter Medawar, the half-British, half-Lebanese, Brazilian-born immunologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1960.

“He is regarded as the father of transplantation and he has saved so many people around the world,” Prof Yacoub says. “I was very lucky to meet him in Chicago first when I was there and then when he came back to the UK at Oxford.”

To me, this is the number one priority: to try and give everybody a chance as much as possible
Magdi Yacoub, Egyptian-British heart surgeon

Prof Yacoub’s charitable work through the UK-registered Chain of Hope, the Magdi Yacoub Foundation in Egypt and the Magdi Yacoub Global Heart Foundation in the US, makes lifesaving operations accessible to the most vulnerable in developing countries.

“One of the things that has been absorbing to me all my life is the inequality of healthcare delivery around the world,” he says. “To me, this is the number one priority: to try and give everybody a chance as much as possible.”

Cardiovascular diseases are the world's leading cause of death, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

The next two centres on the horizon are the Magdi Yacoub Global Heart Centre in Cairo, which is scheduled to be completed in 2024, and the Rwanda Heart Care and Research Foundation in Kigali.

Funded by Dubai-based charity foundation Mohammed bin Rashid Global Initiatives, the 22,000-square-metre, 300-bed Cairo centre will be the largest specialised facility for cardiovascular treatment and research in the Mena region.

Once completed, it will conduct 12,000 heart surgeries a year, of which 60 per cent will target children.

All of Prof Yacoub’s centres focus on three pillars of medical care, research and training: to serve, learn and teach.

“I’m very proud to see that [the new generation is] surging ahead and carrying the message, which I care about most, which is serving humanity, serving science, in the best way and advancing medicine,” he says.

There is one thing, however, that has so far eluded Prof Yacoub: finding a cure for heart failure.

“There are now tools, which are just becoming available to reverse heart failure at the genetic level, biochemical level and metabolic level,” he says. “So we do have tools, but are we going to achieve it within my lifetime? I don’t think so. But we have to keep trying.”

Updated: December 11, 2022, 10:02 AM