A first-rate memoir from a British heart surgeon.
Westaby, a consultant cardiac surgeon at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, credits his grandfather for teaching him how to paint—for “connecting his hand to his brain” when he was a child—but seeing his painful deterioration from heart failure inspired the author’s pursuit of heart surgery—that and a mid-1950s American TV show featuring heart operations. So it was that the dirt-poor boy from a steel town outside of London made it to Charing Cross Hospital Medical School and on to a distinguished career. Following brief biographical chapters and some helpful heart anatomy lessons, the text is a series of you-are-there accounts of Westaby working in operating rooms around the world. In spare prose, he describes what he and his surgical team do to close a congenital hole in an infant’s heart, repair a mitral valve, transplant a donor heart, or implant an artificial one in the form of a ventricular assist pump. Readers will not soon forget the author’s stories about a baby in dire need of surgery to remove a heart tumor or the gang member stabbed close to his heart. Despite the cool detachment espoused by specialists engaged in daily life-or-death battles, Westaby comes across as caring and compassionate. This also manifests in his inveighing against Britain’s National Health Service for not covering costly but lifesaving pumps. (Many of the pumps Westaby implanted were paid for by private charities.) The NHS also insists that heart surgeons’ success and failure rates be published, which, since heart surgery is inherently hazardous, Westaby sees as an excellent way to discourage future practitioners. Indeed, his own accounts do not always end happily. Now, following thousands of surgeries, the author’s hand is permanently disfigured, and he no longer operates. He continues as a consultant, recognized for developing new surgical techniques and advancing artificial heart technology.
Not without some gore but required reading for medical students and hospital-show junkies but also for anyone curious to learn about hearts and the heroic measures to save them.