When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich

9780062656209_56b54At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. He examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

Review:

Books by doctors who wield scalpels are some of my favorites, and Mezrich does a great job introducing the reader to the history and current practice of transplant surgery.

The good:

  • This is not a comprehensive history of transplantation, nor a memoir, nor a collection of patient stories.  It’s equal parts of each, allowing us to get an overview of the field in a personal, relatable way.
  • Transplant surgery is amazing, and Mezrich obviously loves his job and sharing that wonder and excitement with us.  It’s almost like he’s going, ‘Look!  Isn’t this cool?’ And it is.
  • The pioneers of the field, like most doctors in the 1960s and 70s, were men, so I appreciate that he takes the time to acknowledge a woman who is leading the field today and has some bad ass stories of her own.
  • The pacing is good and the switches between history, patient stories, and his training are well done.  I never thought, ‘go back!’ or, ‘ugh, history again’.  It all fits together.
  • Mezrich doesn’t shy away from ethical issues. Some of the first donors didn’t give consent, exactly, and organs were taken from people who died in prison as a matter of course.  When the field was first getting established there wasn’t even an accepted definition of brain death.  Not all the controversy is in the past – do you give a new liver to an alcoholic?  How much risk do you let a living donor take on in order to save their spouse?
  • Overall the tone is upbeat.  He doesn’t tear our hearts out or leave us in suspense about the outcome of a case, which I appreciate.  My eyes did leak a bit while reading the chapter about donors because the details are beautiful and touching. For example, before starting the operation to procure organs the doctors, nurses, ICU team, and other staff that took care of the patient will pause and say something about the donor.  Often they’ll read a poem or express thoughts from the family, and many will have tears in their eyes as they start.
  • There are no spiels about how everyone should donate their kidneys or anything like that.  He accepts organs as they come, and always with a sense of gratitude and respect for the donors.
  • The author seems like a nice guy which is saying a lot, because there are bunches of surgeons who write books that don’t seem like nice guys.  He acknowledges the rest of his team and thanks them often, as well as share funny, self-deprecating stories.

The not-so-good:

  • As much as I enjoyed this book (a lot!) I’m not sure it will stick with me.  It’s missing that ineffable something that screams four star read.  3.5 stars, though I may bump it up later.

If you like books about medicine, look forward to the Wellcome Prize longlist, or are just curious about transplantation, you’ll want to pick up When Death Becomes Life.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

6 thoughts on “When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich

  1. For all that my overall response was a little less positive than yours, I have to agree with all the good bits you mentioned! I also noticed and appreciated his mention of the impressive, present-day female surgeon and I did like the mix of memoir, history, and patient stories.

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