Review, Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby

You can see Stephen Westaby in action here in this clip from Your Life in Their Hands.

This book is a bit like Grey’s Anatomy with each chapter and case study emotionally gripping and heart wrenching (pun not intended). Heart surgeon Stephen Westaby is humble in his arrogance and self-effacing in his success. He knows exactly what he is all about and how to get the story out without getting lost in the details. This last part is hugely important because he also doesn’t scrimp on the technical language and bits and pieces of the body that gets sawed through and dropped and battered while being fixed and occasionally failed.

He has an incredible way of placing things in their context while never knowingly telling a straightforward story. I never knew which of the patients was going to die and the point he was making was that heart surgeons don’t always know either.

This gripping account of heart surgery kept me up for three nights in a row and I got through a lot of tissues. His stories make for an amazing read and I hope that now he has retired (a bit) he will find time to write more. Well, to write more for the general public. He is already well-published having written the chapter on Ballistic Injuries of the Chest for the British military’s textbook of emergency medicine.

He asks the political questions too and we alongside him watch young healthy people die because of the underfunding of the NHS and political decisions made away from the doctors. He asks “Should a First World health-care system use modern technology to prolong life? Or should it let young heart failure patients die miserably like in the Third World?’ He has travelled and operated and revolutionised heart surgery and brought in artificial hearts all around the world. He knows the effects.

A lot of the work he writes about was funded through charity and this is a reflection on neoliberalism and not just the latest Conservative (plus one) government.

No surprise that for a man this accomplished he has done an excellent work in conveying it in a gripping and emotional way, even though he points out that it’s important for surgeons not to stress and not to get too involved with their patients. His humanity shines through despite that.

Fragiles Lives is now available. See Goodreads reviews.


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