Did you know that January is National Blood Donor Month? It is celebrated each January during what is traditionally one of the most difficult times of year to maintain a sufficient blood supply. The act of donating blood takes less than an hour and is virtually painless, which inspired me a few years ago to become a regular donor at our local Red Cross. Blood donations are vital for saving lives, but so are the doctors and nurses who work to ensure my donation makes it to a person who needs it. So, this month I’d like to explore some books that capture their stories and experiences with bringing people back from the verge of death.
Living in the 21st century, we are fortunate to have surgeons with incredible knowledge about how to best perform surgery. It can be easy to forget the trial and error that went into figuring out these surgical techniques. In his book “Under the Knife: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations,” Dutch laparoscopic surgeon Arnold van de Laar recounts several historical surgical cases and how they helped shape the modern techniques surgeons use today. Adding interest, the surgeries van de Laar explores were carried out on well-known people as wide-ranging as Louis XIV of France, John F. Kennedy and Bob Marley.
Of course, a big part of why all surgeries are more successful now has to do with how much more sanitary they’ve become thanks to the development of germ theory and new methods for fighting infection. “The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine” by Lindsey Fitzharris is not for the faint of heart as it delves into the rather gruesome world of Victorian-era hospitals. Smelly, dirty and populated by surgeons who didn’t clean their aprons or instruments between patients, they were truly a place of terror where more often than not a patient’s death was the usual outcome. Fitzharris’s book illustrates the horrific world of medicine that pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister entered into and how he managed to push the medical world out of those dark ages with his promotion of the germ theory of disease and the sterilization of both surgical instruments and doctors’ hands.
Better surgical practices led to further advances in surgery, including organ transplants, which is documented in “Borrowing Life: How Scientists, Surgeons, and a War Hero Made the First Successful Organ Transplant a Reality” by Shelley Fraser Mickle. After World War II, advances came quickly, starting with skin grafts. A better understanding of why the body rejects foreign cells soon led to the first successful kidney transplant. The author’s engaging style of writing pulls readers into the lives of the surgeons who made these groundbreaking advances, including not only their successes, but also the many failures and challenges they faced along the way.
Surgeon Joshua D. Mezrich offers his own insights on organ transplant in “When Death Becomes Life: Notes From a Transplant Surgeon.” The book is a combination of organ transplant history and surgical memoir. Mezrich illustrates the great joy in saving lives, as well as the troubling weight attached to making the decision of which patients will receive the organs and which will not.
Diagnosing a health condition is not always easy; doctors often have to play detective and even rely on a little bit of luck in determining just what medical malady a patient is suffering from. “Diagnosis: Solving the Most Baffling Medical Mysteries” by Lisa Sanders explores several cases in which a patient presents with a mysterious set of symptoms. Sanders documents the twisting path to diagnosis and treatment of these patients, detailing the problem-solving skills and thought processes the doctors tasked with those medical mysteries must employ.
The future in healing lies in innovation, and there are many doctors and scientists who have been working for decades to create life-saving treatments for seemingly intractable problems. In her book “Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart,” Mimi Swartz tells the fascinating, twisty and often tragic story of the race to create the world’s first artificial heart. She shares the stories of the doctors, engineers and medical misfits who have pioneered the field of artificial heart devices. Swartz explores the successes and ultimate failures of artificial heart research up to this point, including asking important questions about the lives lost and the cost of the suffering of so many in the name of medical progress.
If you’re interested in helping to save lives by donating blood, visit the Red Cross website for more information on how to do so.