Labor of Love

In the following photo, Dr. Zbigniew Religa, a Polish cardiac surgeon who was one of the best in the field, monitors his patient after a successful 23-hour successful lung and heart transplant (his assistant is sleeping in the corner). The photo was among National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures.

The procedure took place in 1987 Communist Poland, with the technology of the time requiring constant monitoring and care — something Religa was willing to do even after nearly 24 hours of difficult surgery. The following is an interview with the photographer, James L. Stanfield:

He’d captured the anxious eyes of Dr. Zbigniew Religa tracking the vital signs of a heart-transplant patient. “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” he says. “This was the payoff.”

It was 1987, in an outmoded operating room in post-Soviet Poland. Stanfield was looking for an image that would portray the critical state of the country’s free health-care system—and that’s exactly what he got.

His lens not only focuses on a dedicated surgeon’s eyes, but also on a patient hooked up to technologically outdated equipment. Stanfield also includes a weary staff member (far right) sleeping after assisting Religa with two transplants during an all-night session. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story”.

Here is a touching photo of the patient, no doubt grateful for the doctor’s dedication and skill.

I cannot imagine carrying out even the simplest task after nearly 24 strait hours, much less something as complex as a multi-organ transplant. This is a clear testament to the doctor’s skill and compassion.

Dr. Religa passed away in 2009 aged 70, two years after he finished serving as the Minister of Health of Poland.

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