This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 27 Feb 2017.
Surgical warrior's moving chronicle of courage, compassion and despair
Memoir: Fragile Lives, Professor Stephen Westaby, HarperCollins, €15.99
The medical memoir is enjoying a surge, with readers garnering insight into the lives of brain surgeons, nurses, paramedics and general practitioners. While we may have offered up our own 'diagnosis' on occasion - Dr Google on hand - and dispense medical terms like they were part of everyday life, medicine is not that simple. The doctors with whom we trust our lives have studied for decades and practiced their specialities on real-life patients; they deal with the endless frustrations of medical bureaucracy.
Professor Stephen Westaby, one of Britain's most-renowned cardiac surgeons, has addressed these realities in his memoir Fragile Lives. The book is a combination of some of Westaby's cases and an introduction to his, frankly miraculous, innovative techniques which are still used in cardiac surgery today. "My career followed a curiously erratic course, from self-effacing schoolboy to wildly extrovert medical student, from ruthlessly ambitious young doctor to introverted surgical pioneer."
We learn that this is a man who is determined to change things. He watches his first surgery and is shocked by how quickly the surgeons leave the theatre after losing the patient on the table. He lingers and watches as the nurses wipe away all traces of the patient. He absorbes an important lesson: "Never get involved. Walk away and try again tomorrow." However, as the book progresses, this seems to be an issue for him. Despite his best efforts, he becomes more involved with his patients than his initial mantra suggested. Through different chapters he tells their stories and each has a thread which links the patient to their personality, past and future. These are human beings - 1987, Saudi Arabia, sees Westaby entranced by a "girl with no name". When discovered by the Red Cross she was carrying her small, sickly son. The child had an enlarged heart, on the wrong side of his body and Westaby was the man with enough determination to attempt a repair. "I couldn't help the upwelling of pity I felt for both of them. Surgery was my business but I was sucked into this whirlpool of despair, my objectivity gone."
This is not a book for the squeamish. There are surgeries described in blunt detail, from the first cut, through to jarring rib-spreaders and oozing blood. Westaby seems to flick a switch from the moment he enters the operating theatre; moving from compassionate human to a surgical warrior in an instant. His genius is apparent and his concern for patient care, above the hospital politics, give him a more likeable edge. The surgical scenes are meticulous, yet missing the tone I would expect from a memoir; almost like they are direct transcriptions from medical notes.
The out-of-surgery Westaby teeters between cocky and bleeding-heart (excuse the pun). He boasts of his high-power Jaguar, yet despairs at the lack of funding for his surgical trials. As a non-medical reader, I was impressed with Westaby's achievements; the lives he has saved and those he will save in the future, thanks to his diligence and determination. Anyone involved in cardiac care will be enthralled by the detailed descriptions of ground-breaking surgeries and throw their hands up in despair of how government funding restraints are letting patients die. An informative read.
Sunday Indo Living