Fragile Lives by Professor Stephen Westaby
Professor Stephen Westaby is a world-famous heart surgeon who changed lives for over 35 years. From fitting new types of artificial hearts to taking risks that would bring hospital management out in cold sweats, Fragile Lives follows the highs and lows of his incredible career. Each of the sixteen chapters tells a unique story of a patient and Westaby’s attempts to help them.
This collection of gripping true stories are equally uplifting as they are devastating. Westaby begins the book with a few basic heart diagrams that help you follow his descriptions of his ground-breaking operations. Don’t be put off by thinking that this book might be too heavy with medical jargon, Westaby keeps the perfect tone by simplifying his language or slowly introducing you to necessary words so they never feel overwhelming. These stories are incredible accounts of medical miracles and an insight into how far heart surgery has come in just one lifetime. What he has achieved is mind-blowing and his stories of hearts needing plugs in peoples skulls and his passion to strive for improvements in his field makes for brilliant reading.
There’s also a second level to this book that I found fascinating and that’s how someone can take lives in their hands every single day and not fall apart under the pressure. He talks about how he detaches himself from patients as they’re anaesthetised, careful not to get drawn into the emotion of the situation when loved ones are parted. He openly admits to feelings of invincibility in his younger days and refers to being pulled over by the police for speeding on the way to emergency surgery as getting him even more psyched up for theatre.
‘This conflict pumps up the adrenaline even more, so when I get there I’m ready to explode into action, to wield that knife.’
At first, I found this part unnerving, my instant response being ‘shouldn’t a heart surgeon be cool and calm as he walks into an emergency?’ But then I thought about it properly for the first time in my life. I know there is no way on Earth that I could do what Westaby does, the pressure would crush me in a second. To have the confidence to crack open that first rib cage, to cut into a babies heart, to never question your own ability, that takes a special kind of person. That takes someone with supreme confidence, with no doubt in their own ability. Westaby is a risk taker and because of that, he’s one of the most ground-breaking surgeons in the world. It’s this behind-the-scenes view into a man that’s saved thousands of lives that really made this book so engrossing.
The afterword of Fragile Lives also makes for provocative reading. Now retired, Westaby reflects on the current state on the NHS and how paperwork, politics and public statistics are all impacting on the future of medicine. Sad and scary but it probably shouldn’t be surprising.
I don’t often read non-fiction but when I read books like this, it makes me realise what I’m missing out on. Westaby is an incredibly talented man that’s touched thousands of peoples lives, directly through surgery or through improving medical techniques for others to follow. This book will only increase the lives he touches and I’m happy to be added to that list.
If you like this check out Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks.