An unflinching, blood-and-guts look at the science and despair of modern open-heart surgery, framed by a biography of a
giant in the field, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei.
Surgeons may grumble when Providence Journal reporter Miller (The Work of Human Hands, 1992, etc.) singles out Lillehei,
the charismatic showboat who died of pneumonia in July 1999, as the 20th century's most important cardiologist. But Lillehei's
laboratory research, his co-development of the pacemaker and an inexpensive heart-lung machine, and his damn-the-torpedoes
persistence when so many of his patients (the majority of them children born with defective hearts) died have changed what began
as the medical equivalent of a shot in the dark into a relatively safe surgical practice that has extended the lives of millions. The
son of a dentist of Norwegian ancestry, Lillehei, a rugged overachiever, flunked high school chemistry but still entered the
University of Minnesota at age 16 and graduated tenth in his medical school class. A hard-drinking, bed-hopping spendthrift who
hated paperwork, Lillehei served in a WWII MASH unit in Africa and Europe, then assisted in the research lab of his mentor,
Dr. Owen Wangensteen at the University Hospital, where Lillehei himself went under Wangensteen's knife for lymph cancer.
After recovering, Lillehei did cardiac research on dogs, developing surgical techniques for what were considered inoperable heart
defects at a time when cardiology was so primitive that some surgeons thought poking their fingers blindly through blocked valves
would do the trick. Beginning with his first open heart operation in 1954, Lillehei became America's most famous heart surgeon,
only to retire in ignominy in 1973 after he was convicted of income tax evasion.
With the medical profession under financial and ethical siege, Miller's breathless suspenseful reminder of the
life-and-death-but-mostly-death drama of medical research, as well as the pathological risk-takers that drive it forward, could not
have come at a more opportune time.