On September 3, 1958, Lois and Hector Arnold kissed their daughter Helen goodbye and wondered if it would be for the last time.

The Arnolds, in their 30s and parents of five other children, had travelled from Christchurch to Auckland because they wanted to give Helen, then 10, a shot at life.

She'd been born with a hole between the two main pumping chambers of her heart and life had become a daily battle. Lois and Hector were told their daughter could soon die but there was a chance her life could be prolonged - she might even get a "normal" lifespan - if they were willing to let her undergo a revolutionary new operation trialled only on sheep.

That involved using the Melrose Heart-Lung Machine, which would temporarily take over the functions of Helen's heart, allowing surgeons to operate on an exposed, dry organ.

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It was imported at the request of young cardiac surgeon Brian Barrett-Boyes who persuaded the then Auckland Hospital Board to spend £3000 (about NZ$116,500 today) shipping it from the United Kingdom.

It arrived missing some parts and needing modifications. Greenlane Hospital had the services of Sid Yarrow, a former WWII radio technician, who worked with Alfred Melville of the Auckland Industrial Development Laboratory to manufacture the necessary parts and modify the machine accordingly.

Though the Melrose machine had been tried on sheep, it had never been used on a person - but had the potential to make medical history and, more importantly, save the lives of millions. If only someone would go first.

Helen knew she was going to have an operation but in an interview with the Weekend Herald this week, she said her parents didn't tell her she was the first child to undergo such a procedure. She'd been on a hospital ward with other critically ill children, but none of their parents would consent to the surgery.

"We had family in Auckland who said to my mum and dad, 'well, you've come all this way to get a job done so you have to give it a go'."

During the surgery, the Melrose machine bypassed Helen's heart for 25 minutes. The operation wasn't an instant success - the patch didn't take and a second operation was required three months later. By then, Dr Barratt-Boyes, eventually to be knighted for his work, had successfully operated on four other children.

Helen Harris was a vital part of one of the world's most revolutionary medical advancements.
Helen Harris was a vital part of one of the world's most revolutionary medical advancements.

How did it change Helen's life? Now Helen Harris, a mother and grandmother, she's alive living in Christchurch and telling her tale.

"I remember Dr Barratt-Boyes going to sleep in the chair beside me in those first few days. Apart from being my lifegiving surgeon, he was also a fatherly, tender figure whom I trusted utterly, and a good friend to Mum and Dad.

"He has been a figure around which my life has pivoted. I have had quite a life since: three open-heart surgeries, three pacemakers, two strokes. I am now 70 and still here and very fortunate. I have three grandchildren and I walk my dog every day."

Despite the role she played in medical history - the procedure is today routine - her name won't pop up in a search of the country's medical pioneers.

"We don't get any recognition," she says, an edge to her voice. "It's not like we were sports stars."

But people like Helen - and her parents - are the unsung heroes of medical history, according to Dr Margaret Horsburgh, the chairperson of the Auckland Medical Museum Trust (AMMT).

She describes them as "the brave hearts" - the courageous souls who put their lives in the hands of doctors and surgeons for the good of medical science and, by default, every one of us in every generation to come.

Today it looks like a prop from a sci-fi TV series; back in the 1950s, the Melrose Heart-Lung Machine was a revolutionary life saving machine.
Today it looks like a prop from a sci-fi TV series; back in the 1950s, the Melrose Heart-Lung Machine was a revolutionary life saving machine.

That's why the AMMT has named its first exhibition Brave Hearts - The New Zealand Cardiac Story. Formed in 2014, the trust wants to bring a medical museum, in one form or another, to Auckland so stories of our medical history and achievements can be kept alive to inspire future generations.

Whether an Auckland medical museum is eventually established at a specific location is yet to be decided. For now, the trust is taking a first step by launching this first pop-up exhibition at Motat, profiling pioneering Kiwi heart clinicians, like Barratt-Boyes and recognising the bravery of patients like Helen Harris.

Lottery Grants Board funding allowed the trust to work with exhibition architect Rick Pearson to modify two shipping containers while 3D models and animations have been developed. For now, concentrating on online and pop-up exhibitions - the latter can travel to the regions - seems to be best.

Brave Hearts will explain how the heart works, how heart disease is investigated and the largely untold story of this country's leading role in the evolution of heart surgery.

Horsburgh says it also recognises the mythology and romance around the heart, with a look at how it's been portrayed in art and literature. Displays with interactive models demonstrate normal heart function, what can go wrong and what can be done to diagnose and correct heart problems.

Kylie Sullivan has used her animation and 3D modelling skills to create visualisations which will be used in the Brave Hearts exhibition.
Kylie Sullivan has used her animation and 3D modelling skills to create visualisations which will be used in the Brave Hearts exhibition.

Supported by Auckland University of Technology, Brave Hearts opened at Motat yesterday. Horsburgh sees it as a natural fit for an organisation focused on innovation and advancement and Motat's general manager, museum experience Steven Fox agrees.

He says it fits with the organisation's aim to promote stories that celebrate the transformation of transport and technology and the role of Kiwi ingenuity.

"And there are some incredible stories from that [medical] space. It is fantastic to be involved with an exhibition where a machine like the Melrose Heart-Lung Machine can be displayed in its rightful context."

For years, the Melrose Heart-Lung Machine has sat in storage at Motat looking like a prop from an episode of Dr Who. Developed by Dr Denis Melrose in London to revolutionise heart surgery, it made international headlines when Barratt-Boyes carried out the world's first successful repair of a hole in a child's heart, Helen Arnold, at Greenlane Hospital.

The success of medical museums around the world - most major cities have at least one - points to the continued fascination we have with our own mortality and what our forebears have been willing to put themselves through to survive (acknowledged - some not as willingly as others).

"Part of it isthe macabre," says Fox, "but there's a fascination around medical history because the fundamental thing is that people make an emotional connection to it and, as a museum, that's what we want."

Medical historian Linda Bryder says you don't have to go too far back in history to see how central health and wellbeing - sickness and death - were: "In the lives of the ordinary people of the past, you can't really avoid the subject. It was such a dominant part of people's lives."

Bryder says objects like the Melrose machine are just a starting point for researchers. Through the University of Auckland, student Erna Battenhaussen spent time at Motat researching objects from the collection that could form the beginnings of an online Auckland Medical Museum.

The Melrose Machine was among the most significant, but Battenhaussen also found an early ECG machine, an iron lung used to keep polio patients alive, one of the first neo-natal incubators and instruments used by another New Zealand physician, Sir William Liley, to pioneer intrauterine blood transfusions.

Battenhaussen tried to place each object in a wider historical context. For example, the iron lung, a common treatment for polio - which affected nearly 10,000 people in New Zealand between 1915 and 1961 - was built at Auckland Hospital around 1935 and used an electric motor and vacuum pumps from a milking machine.

"It wasn't just about the innovation and technology involved in the machine itself; it was about thinking about what it would be like - what it meant - to contract polio in an era before immunisation and then have to rely on a machine like this to stay alive."

Margaret Horsburgh, chair of the Auckland Medical Museum Trust, with the containers that will house Brave Hearts - The New Zealand Cardiac Story at MOTAT. NZ Herald Photo: Brett Phibbs
Margaret Horsburgh, chair of the Auckland Medical Museum Trust, with the containers that will house Brave Hearts - The New Zealand Cardiac Story at MOTAT. NZ Herald Photo: Brett Phibbs

She gives an almost involuntary shudder when she adds "some people were in them for many years".

Horsburgh says objects related to our medical history can be found across Auckland with some in public collections, like Motat's, and others in private hands. She was soon to meet a woman who was storing objects from the now defunct Oakley Psychiatric Hospital in her garage.

Given this, there's a real chance we're in danger of losing objects and stories that are an important part of our history. Horsburgh says the trust wants New Zealanders, particularly young people, to know and be inspired by local achievements.

"We've even got Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes' stethoscope in the exhibition; in the history of this country, that should be treated like [Sir Edmund] Hillary's axe."

Lowdown:
Brave Hearts - The New Zealand Cardiac Story opens at Motat on Friday, August 18 and runs until January. It will then travel to Hamilton and AUT campus destinations.