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Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby

Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby
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The distinguished cardiac surgeon Stephen Westaby has “touched more hearts than the average modern poet laureate”, said Oliver Moody in The Times. In a career spanning 35 years, Westaby performed around 12,000 operations, and was a pioneer in the development of artificial hearts – including one, the Jarvik 2000, that pushes the blood through the body without creating a pulse. In Fragile Lives, a memoir based around 15 case studies, Westaby looks back on a career devoted to the “business of fixing hearts”. He recounts miraculous life-saving feats (flying from Australia to Oxford to perform open-heart surgery on an emaciated baby girl), as well as harrowing failures (after one patient, a young Saudi Arabian boy, died, his mother “bundled his corpse to her chest and jumped from the top of a nearby building”). This is not a book for those who like poetic writing, or meditations on the “evanescence of life”; Westaby’s prose is “bluff” and “workmanlike”. Yet this is a “frank and absorbing memoir” by someone who has done “about as much direct good” as is possible in one lifetime.

Westaby, who retired last year, was an “unabashedly old-school” surgeon, the kind who simply wouldn’t give up until the job was done, said Gabriel Weston in The Daily Telegraph. His blow-by-blow accounts of his triumphs in theatre are “nail-biting”. But there’s a “stern political message” underpinning this book. Westaby was successful because he was allowed to take risks – and occasionally to fail. In his view, this is no longer possible: the medical profession is being killed by “pointless targets and a climate of blame”. As a result, in future there may be “precious few surgeons left” to perform “life-saving operations”.

All surgeons can tell hair-raising stories, but what makes this book unusual is the “brutal candour” of Westaby’s writing, said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. Hearts are described as being like a “dog’s dinner”, or “tenderised steak”; another, put on bypass, “flapped around at the bottom of the pericardial sac like a wet fish”. Westaby himself emerges as a contradictory figure. A Jaguar-driving ex-rugby player with a German shepherd named Max, he sometimes seems no more than a cliché of masculinity. Yet at other times, the “emotions break through the professional carapace”, and he reveals a more reflective side. “Surgeons are meant to be objective, not human,” he writes. What makes Fragile Lives “so fascinating, and so moving, is the terrible tension between those necessary qualities”.

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