Fragile Lives [review]

Fragile Lives - Stephen Westaby

Title: Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table
Author: Stephen Westaby
Publisher: HarperCollins UK


An incredible memoir from one of the world’s most eminent heart surgeons and some of the most remarkable and poignant cases he’s worked on.
Grim Reaper sits on the heart surgeon’s shoulder. A slip of the hand and life ebbs away.
The balance between life and death is so delicate, and the heart surgeon walks that rope between the two. In the operating room there is no time for doubt. It is flesh, blood, rib-retractors and pumping the vital organ with your bare hand to squeeze the life back into it. An off-day can have dire consequences – this job has a steep learning curve, and the cost is measured in human life. Cardiac surgery is not for the faint of heart.
Professor Stephen Westaby took chances and pushed the boundaries of heart surgery. He saved hundreds of lives over the course of a thirty-five year career and now, in his astounding memoir, Westaby details some of his most remarkable and poignant cases – such as the baby who had suffered multiple heart attacks by six months old, a woman who lived the nightmare of locked-in syndrome, and a man whose life was powered by a battery for eight years.
A powerful, important and incredibly moving book, Fragile Lives offers an exceptional insight into the exhilarating and sometimes tragic world of heart surgery, and how it feels to hold someone’s life in your hands.

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[My Review]

I really, really enjoyed this memoir – I fancied something that would make a change from all the fiction I usually read, and this turned out to be the perfect pick.
It’s full of fascinating stories, both from Professor Stephen Westaby himself as he takes us through some of the key operations in his career, but there’s also a lot focusing on the people going under Westaby’s knife and how they felt, what led to them needing surgery (including back stories) and how they fared afterwards. It’s a real rollercoaster of highs and lows, with some great results and some which made me feel so sad. I suppose that’s all part of operating on something as important as the human heart though! It did make me think, I don’t imagine I could ever deal with even half the pressure surgeons are always under, and all the emotions from not just the patients themselves but their partners, friends and families too! What a lot of pressure!
The way the book is written allows someone who is certainly not scientific-minded – ie. me – to understand (and I use the word ‘understand’ in a loosest possible way) what Stephen Westaby and his team doing and why… (sort of!) It’s not such complex language that you can’t follow it, and Westaby explains things in a way that makes it a lot clearer and accessible to everyone.
I loved this book. It’s interesting, full of emotion, failure but also triumph, and you can really understand the author’s passion for his profession. Of course, being on call and having such an amazing career has meant aspects of his personal life have inevitably suffered; Stephen says at one point “While I spent many hours striving to save other people’s children… I never spent enough time with my own.”
I have to admit I felt a bit woozy reading some quite in-depth surgery scenes (not great with lots of blood) but regardless of my squeamishness I found the details fascinating! I also found the details about the NHS so interesting, as his career starts back in the 80’s and carries on through to the present day. The NHS is something I’m so passionate about, and there’s a very interesting quote towards the end of the book which really makes you think about the system today:

“So what happened to heart surgery in the UK? After multiple hospital scandals the NHS in England decided to publish individual surgeons’ death rates. Now no one wants to be a heart surgeon.”

From being a working class boy from Scunthorpe to operating on some of the most high profile cases of heart surgery the world has seen, I felt like I was along with Stephen for the journey – and what a journey! Highly recommended.

[Rating: 5/5]

Many thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.



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