A Life Dedicated to Saving Hearts: The Life and Death of Dr. Victor Chang

Dr. Victor Chang, a name synonymous with heart surgery and transplantation, was a pioneer in his field and a beacon of hope for countless patients. His life, though tragically cut short at the age of 54, was marked by extraordinary achievements and an unwavering commitment to saving lives.

Early Life and Education

Dr. Victor Chang‘s journey began in 1936 when he was born in Shanghai to Australian-born Chinese-British parents. Growing up in the vibrant city of Hong Kong, his formative years were shaped by the cultural blend of his heritage. Chang’s early education took place in Kowloon Tong, where he attended primary school, and later, he spent two influential years at St. Paul’s College.

Tragedy struck the Chang family on April 7, 1948, when Chang’s mother succumbed to breast cancer at the tender age of 33. This heartbreaking loss deeply impacted the young Chang and proved to be a pivotal moment in shaping his aspirations. At the age of 12, he began contemplating a career in medicine, inspired by the profound desire to make a difference in the field of healthcare.

In 1951, Chang’s father, Aubrey, made the decision to send Victor and his younger sister to Sydney, Australia, to live with extended family members. Embracing a new chapter in his life, Chang found himself enrolled at Belmore Boys’ High School in the suburb of Belmore. It was during this time that his academic prowess began to shine, setting the stage for a remarkable educational journey.

Continuing his pursuit of knowledge, Victor Chang completed his secondary education at Christian Brothers’ High School in Lewisham. The foundations laid during his high school years fueled his passion for learning and set the stage for his future accomplishments. Subsequently, he embarked on his tertiary education at the prestigious University of Sydney, where he demonstrated exceptional dedication to his studies.

In 1962, Dr. Victor Chang graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Medical Science with First-Class Honours and a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery. His academic achievements marked the beginning of a distinguished career that would go on to significantly impact the field of cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. The seeds of inspiration planted in his early years would blossom into a legacy that extended far beyond the classrooms of his youth.

Pioneering Heart Transplantation

After completing his medical training, Victor Chang embarked on a surgical residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. He quickly gained recognition for his surgical skills and compassionate approach to patient care. In 1984, he performed Australia’s first successful heart transplant, marking a significant milestone in the country’s medical history.

Victor Chang’s work in heart transplantation was groundbreaking. He developed new surgical techniques and immunosuppressive therapies that significantly improved the success rates of transplant operations. His dedication to research and innovation led to numerous advancements in the field, giving hope to countless patients with life-threatening heart conditions.

A Tragic Loss

On that fateful morning, Chang was shot twice in the head in a failed extortion attempt. Two Malaysian men, Chew Seng (Ah Sung) Liew and Choon Tee (Phillip) Lim, randomly chose Chang from a magazine featuring successful Asians in Australia. They forced Chang to pull over by colliding with his Mercedes-Benz and, after an argument, shot him. Chang’s body was found in the gutter next to his car in the Sydney suburb of Mosman.

Chew Seng (Ah Sung) Liew pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 26 years in prison with a non-parole period of 20 years. Choon Tee (Phillip) Lim, who pleaded not guilty and claimed he did not know Liew had a firearm, was sentenced to 18 to 24 years. Another individual, Stanley Ng, had abandoned the extortion plan a day before the murder. He was granted immunity for providing evidence. The prosecution claimed the plan was to abduct Chang, tie him up with his family, and threaten to harm them to force Chang into withdrawing money from the bank. The judge, John Slattery, described the plan as “absurd” and “improbable.”

Choon Tee (Phillip) Lim was awarded parole on October 26, 2009, but his release was put on hold following public outcry and objections from officials. Eventually, the New South Wales Supreme Court ruled that the Parole Authority lacked the power to rescind its previous decision, and Lim was freed from Parramatta Correctional Centre on March 1, 2010, and deported to Kuala Lumpur.

Chew Seng (Ah Sung) Liew was granted parole after 21 years in prison. In his parole hearing, he apologized for the crime and expressed the belief that his lengthy prison term had a positive impact. He was released on October 12, 2012, and deported to Malaysia the next day. There was initially a small objection from NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith, but it was later retracted.

Dr. Victor Chang’s Legacy:

  1. Victor Chang Foundation: In 1984, Dr. Chang founded the Dr. Victor Chang Foundation, dedicated to providing funds for education and innovation in cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. The foundation is still active today and is led by Dr. Chang’s daughter, Vanessa Chang.
  2. Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute: Launched on February 15, 1994, by Prime Minister Paul Keating with Kerry Packer as its patron, the institute focuses on researching the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of heart muscle diseases.
  3. Recognition as Australian of the Century: In 1999, Prime Minister John Howard announced Dr. Victor Chang as Australian of the Century at the People’s Choice Awards, recognizing his significant contributions. The decision was made among contenders such as swimmer Dawn Fraser, cricketer Donald Bradman, and ophthalmologist Fred Hollows.
  4. Victor Chang Science Labs: Named after Dr. Chang, these labs are located in Christian Brothers’ High School.
  5. Victor Chang Lowy Packer Building: Established in 2008 at St Vincent’s Hospital, the building received funding from the state government and corporate/private donations. It houses facilities for heart research and was officially opened by Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark.
  6. Recognition in Time Magazine: In Time magazine’s “A Golden Anniversary” article, which highlights figures that shaped the last 50 years in the South Pacific (1959–2009), Dr. Chang was listed as the figure of 1979–1989.
  7. Sydney Ferries Emerald-class ferry: In 2017, a ferry was named “Dr. Victor Chang” in honor of his contributions.
  8. Minor planet named after Dr. Victor Chang: The passage mentions that a minor planet, identified as 24450, was named after Dr. Chang.
  9. Google Doodle: On November 21, 2023, Google celebrated what would have been Dr. Victor Chang’s 87th birthday with a Google Doodle.

Key Achievements

  • Performed Australia’s first successful heart transplant in 1984
  • Developed new surgical techniques and immunosuppressive therapies for heart transplantation
  • Established the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, a world-class research facility
  • Tireless advocate for organ donation and public awareness

Impact on Society

Victor Chang’s impact on society is immeasurable. His groundbreaking work in heart transplantation has saved countless lives and improved the quality of life for millions more. His dedication to research and innovation has led to significant advancements in the field of cardiology, offering hope to patients with life-threatening heart conditions.

Beyond his medical contributions, Victor Chang was also a role model for compassion, humanitarianism, and leadership. He inspired generations of Australians and people around the world with his unwavering commitment to saving lives and improving the lives of others.

Victor Chang’s legacy is a testament to the power of human potential and the impact that one individual can have on the world. His story continues to inspire and motivate, reminding us of the importance of compassion, innovation, and the pursuit of knowledge in making the world a better place.