One of the world’s leading heart surgeons shares the hard-won lessons of a life lived where failure and death are just a heartbeat away.
As an eighteen year old medical student in 1966, Stephen Westaby snuck into a restricted operating theater to witness his first open heart surgery. What struck him most about the scene wasn’t the squirming heart inside the patient’s chest cavity, but rather the stillness of the room after the patient’s last breath, when the surgeons simply left the room without even looking back. As he soon understood, this was a crucial survival strategy: “it may seem insensitive, even callous, but to dwell on death was a dreadful mistake.” In a profession where failure is literally a heartbeat away and the cost of that failure is death, to “just walk away and try again tomorrow” was the only way to make sure he’d have the strength to come back. How else could he live with himself and the consequences of performing operations that could go wrong in a single stroke?
Since that first encounter, Dr. Westaby has performed over 11,000 surgeries. Open Heart is his first attempt to turn back and reflect on all of them, showing us why the procedures have never become routine and will never be. With astonishing compassion and candor, Dr. Westaby recounts the often fraught and alarming stories of the patients on whom he has operated. In these pages, we meet a pulseless man who became the longest living person with an electric heart pump. We look on as a young expecting mother refuses to receive an aortic valve replacement unless the doctors let her pregnancy reach full term. And we hold our breath as a baby boy’s tiny heart is taken out, operated on, and then transplanted back into his miniature chest cavity–only to stop beating as soon as the child cries out for his mother. Woven into each patient’s story are also Westaby’s own ruminations on the moral, political, and ethical challenges involved in today’s healthcare, as well as the frustrations that come with working within the bureaucracies of a modern hospital.
Precise and emotionally complex, Open Heart is a moving account of how one man unflinchingly confronts death on a daily basis–and how, with a firm sense of humor and brutally honest self-reflection, he has found a way to go on living. Full of pain and hope, triumph and death, this book offers unforgettable insight into our heart of hearts and reminds us of the awesome resilience of life.
Available June 20, 2017 from Hachette Audio as a digital download, Hardcover, and E-book from Basic Books.
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