Seeing a still-warm human heart, beating just minutes ago, sliced up takes some getting used to. For journalist Charles Morris as he observes a heart transplant, this is just another shock in his year-long stay with a team of top heart surgeons at a New York hospital.
His admiration for the medics is clear. Their skill, training and concentration have saved thousands of lives. And yet there is something eerie about this book, a hint of a horror movie. The physicians perform near miracles as they work on patients suspended between life and death by machines and clever tricks. But the cultural value of the heart is such that, fleetingly, there is the impression that surgeons are removing more than just flesh.
Morris’ descriptions convey the urgency and precision of heat surgery. He also reveals the contrasts: the delicate manipulation of tiny vessels around the heart during a by-pass operation and the sheer physical effort required to saw through the chest bone and later ratchet the rib cage back together. The endurance and stamina of the operating team – eight hours bent over a patient without a drink, food or toilet break while maintaining absolute concentration – is to be marvelled at.
The mixed emotions stimulated by the macabre runs to ‘harvest’ organs from the recently deceased are hard to deal with. Across New York state, teams gently remove organs – heart, lung, kidney and liver – from the dead, still pink from the life-support machines needed to keep the organs in top condition. The tragedy of an early death balanced against the priceless gift of life for four or five others.
The Surgeons is thought-provoking, gripping and occasionally desperately sad. It is an uneasy read, raising issues of mortality and who should receive precious donor organs. Morris’ almost blind devotion to the operating team contrasts with his swipe at the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Technical terms, hard to avoid when describing open-heart surgery, can make procedures hard to follow, and the Americanisms – gurney (trolley), OR (operating theatre), for example — take some getting used to. Overall it’s a fast-moving book that holds the reader. Though written to mark the triumph of science, the feeling of witnessing a horror movie was hard to shake.