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Found in translation: navigating uncertainty to save a child's heart. Paediatric cardiac surgery in Cape Town, South Africa


This medical humanities paper describes our qualitative research into pathways to care and informed consent for 10 children who had cardiac surgery in the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa. Our multidisciplinary team consists of cardiologists, anthropologists, a social scientist and a general practitioner in two sites, South Africa and Australia. This paper builds on our first publication in a specialist cardiology journal on a ‘qualitative snapshot’ of these children’s life stories from 2011 to 2016 but turns to the medical humanities to explore a concept of ‘uncertainty’. Data analysis revealed that for the children’s parents and doctors, ‘uncertainty’ underscored procedures. Indeed, the literature review showed that ‘uncertainty’ is intrinsic to heart surgery and was integral to Barnard’s first heart transplant in Cape Town in 1967. We demonstrate that in meeting the challenges inherent in the ‘uncertainty dimension’, doctors established greater ‘medical certainty’about each operation. This happened as they encountered the difficult clinical and biopsychosocial factors that were fundamental to the diagnosis of children’s cardiac defects. It was doctors’ translation of these decision-making processes that informed parental decisions and described why, despite feelings of uncertainty, parents signed consent. To visually describe heart surgery in this locality we asked the South African photographer, Guy Neveling to record some children undergoing echocardiograms and surgery. These photographs qualitatively demonstrate what medical certainty entails, and parents’ trust in doctors and surgeons, whom they knew had ‘reasonable certainty’ that their child’s ‘heart is worth saving’.

  • medical anthropology
  • cardiology
  • medical humanities
  • paediatrics
  • surgery

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