REVIEW: When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich
A gifted surgeon illuminates one of the most profound, awe-inspiring, and deeply affecting achievements of modern day medicine—the movement of organs between bodies—in this exceptional work of death and life that takes its place besides Atul Gawande’s Complications, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, and Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think.
At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.
When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve human lives. Mezrich examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.
“the dumbest kidney is smarter than the smartest doctor”
Dear Dr. Mezrich,
I remain fascinated by books about medicine and veterinary medicine. So when I saw this book on offer, I jumped at it. After I read a novel about heart transplantation called The Heart, a neurologist posted answers to some of my questions about the process of procurement (and I totally agree this is a much better term than harvesting – ugh). I remain convinced that donation is one of the most selfless acts and decisions that someone or a grieving family can make.
The history of the field is one I knew very little about. The leaps and bounds as it progressed from pipe dreams and “you’re crazy!” – or worse “you’re a murderer!” – through failures to final success would try surgeons’ souls. I found myself with mixed feelings about some of the pioneering work which bordered or, at times, crossed over the line of questionable medical ethics. While perhaps not quite as ghoulish or horrifying as Burke and Hare, some past incidents screamed out for Ethics Committees. The story of the father of hemodialysis who also saved Dutch lives from the Nazi while tinkering with his idea for this life saving device was fascinating.
Even though our organs are part of us, we don’t have to understand what they do every day, what they might be going through. Each of our organs works for us in perfect concert, never missing a day and rarely complaining.
I found your willingness to be brutally honest about your fears, worries and mistakes refreshing. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to put these into print for the world to see. But after surviving your assholic chief resident, I guess this is peanuts.
The medical details about the surgeries as well as the background on what the trailblazers of the field did got a touch complicated at times and I found myself searching the Internet for definitions of terms. Maybe a bit more “insert tab A into slot B” basics might have helped. But still I dove into the patient histories and how you interacted with them and your fellows, attendings and residents. “Don’t screw it up.” Words for a surgeon to live by.
This is both the beauty and the challenge of surgery. This is why we train so hard and help one another and push ourselves to be perfect even when we can’t be. This is why surgery can be so wonderful, but also so humbling. It is also why we need to call for help, own our mistakes, always try to be better.
These organs we transplant—the livers, the kidneys, the hearts—they are the ultimate gift, the gift of life, the last thing the dead can bestow upon the living. We, as surgeons, simply transfer them from one person to another. We are the stewards, and it is our job to make sure the gift is given.
It will probably never happen but the idea of standing by an OR table and watching as a newly transplanted heart starts beating, a kidney starts producing urine, a liver begins producing bile, or lungs start breathing and this patient can begin living again, hopefully free of hospitals and the misery of being near death’s door, makes me almost giddy to imagine it. I almost envy those with the privilege of seeing it and knowing they played a part and are stewards of these amazing gifts of life. After reading this, I will try and remember to daily thank my organs for chugging along and keeping me healthy. B+