You may not have heard of Stephen Westaby, but in the medical world, he's internationally renowned as a brilliant heart surgeon. Based in Oxford, England, he's a pioneer in artificial heart technology and recently retired from active surgery after more than four decades in the operating theater.
Westaby's highly readable Open Heart: A Cardiac Surgeon's Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table is part memoir, part how-to (perform open-heart surgery, that is) and part All Creatures Great and Small-style reflection, with stories throughout about cases he's encountered during his journey from eager medical student to seen-it-all senior physician.
Some vignettes tell of smashing successes, such as the chapter about Peter Houghton, the artificial heart recipient who lived for over seven years after becoming the first person to be given an artificial heart for permanent use rather than as a bridge to transplantation. Others recount tragic failures, such as the death of an 18-month-old patient followed almost immediately by his mother's suicide. Westaby relates these cases in a matter-of-fact tone—a tone that he makes clear is a necessary survival mechanism in a profession in which death is a constant companion.
The focus of this book is on the patients, and rightfully so, but Westaby allows us a few glimpses into the mind of a doctor at the top of the profession, “desperate to do some good.” He knows it's time to get out when not only is his hand gnarled from handling surgical instruments, but when he finds empathy taking over for that all-important objectivity. England's famed National Health Service is also a source of frustration, featuring countless bureaucratic battles and the necessity of relying on charitable funds for risky surgeries. But frustrations aside, Open Heart is a heart-tugger, and a fascinating read.