Skip to main content

The Surgeons – Charles R. Morris ****

Seeing a still-warm human heart, beating just minutes ago, sliced up takes some getting used to. For journalist Charles Morris as he observes a heart transplant, this is just another shock in his year-long stay with a team of top heart surgeons at a New York hospital.
His admiration for the medics is clear. Their skill, training and concentration have saved thousands of lives. And yet there is something eerie about this book, a hint of a horror movie. The physicians perform near miracles as they work on patients suspended between life and death by machines and clever tricks. But the cultural value of the heart is such that, fleetingly, there is the impression that surgeons are removing more than just flesh.
Morris’ descriptions convey the urgency and precision of heat surgery. He also reveals the contrasts: the delicate manipulation of tiny vessels around the heart during a by-pass operation and the sheer physical effort required to saw through the chest bone and later ratchet the rib cage back together. The endurance and stamina of the operating team – eight hours bent over a patient without a drink, food or toilet break while maintaining absolute concentration – is to be marvelled at.
The mixed emotions stimulated by the macabre runs to ‘harvest’ organs from the recently deceased are hard to deal with. Across New York state, teams gently remove organs – heart, lung, kidney and liver – from the dead, still pink from the life-support machines needed to keep the organs in top condition. The tragedy of an early death balanced against the priceless gift of life for four or five others.
The Surgeons is thought-provoking, gripping and occasionally desperately sad. It is an uneasy read, raising issues of mortality and who should receive precious donor organs. Morris’ almost blind devotion to the operating team contrasts with his swipe at the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Technical terms, hard to avoid when describing open-heart surgery, can make procedures hard to follow, and the Americanisms – gurney (trolley), OR (operating theatre), for example — take some getting used to. Overall it’s a fast-moving book that holds the reader. Though written to mark the triumph of science, the feeling of witnessing a horror movie was hard to shake.
Hardback:  
Review by Maria Hodges

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…