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.

This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman

Synopsis:

15818399In This Explains Everything, John Brockman, founder and publisher of Edge.org, asked experts in numerous fields and disciplines to come up with their favorite explanations for everyday occurrences. Why do we recognize patterns? Is there such a thing as positive stress? Are we genetically programmed to be in conflict with each other? Those are just some of the 150 questions that the world’s best scientific minds answer with elegant simplicity.

With contributions from Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Nassim Taleb, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and more, everything is explained in fun, uncomplicated terms that make the most complex concepts easy to comprehend.

Review:

This book of collected essays asks the question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” Many people, from Richard Dawkins to Brian Eno to professors you’ve never heard of (and are amazingly cool) contribute their ideas and theories.

The essays are lovingly ordered so that you flow from biology to physics to neuroscience to psychology in a way that never feels forced or jarring. One writer will expound about, say, the Pigeonhole Theory and the next will use it as a jumping off point for a completely different explanation.

With 150 different contributors there’s bound to be dull bits, uneven spots, and a few oddities. Overall, however, the writing quality is high and the content gave me a lot to think about. This is a book to read slowly, maybe five essays a day, so you can ruminate over each idea. A few of my favorite essays are:

Group Polarization by David G. Myers
Dirt is Matter Out of Place by Christine Finn (the title gives it away, but hey)
How Do You Get from a Lobster to a Cat? by John McWhorter
Lemons are Fast by Barry C. Smith
Why We Feel Pressed for Time by Elizabeth Dunn

After reading this book I have a healthy store of dinner party chatter and my mind has been opened. If you like a particular writer you can pick up other work they’ve done, as many are published authors. Even if you don’t you’ll enjoy the feeling of your mind being tickled by the interesting, elegant theories.


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20820098  Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey

Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey

Synopsis:

20820098From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters.

Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns.

Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom—and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read non-fiction that kept drawing me back to see “what happens next” but Atomic is totally that book.

The subject matter helps – nearly every recorded radiological mishap and disaster, both famous and little-known. There are caves of death in the Ozark Mountains circa 1880, radium paint that killed dozens, World War II, Three Mile Island, and of course Fukushima Daiichi. Mahaffey leads us through each, carefully explaining isotopes and reactions in ways that neither make you feel stupid nor dumb down the material.

He states his biases right in the introduction:

The purpose of this book is not to convince you that nuclear power is unsafe beyond reason…. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that nuclear power is even safer than transportation by steam and may be one of the key things that will allow life on Earth to keep progressing; but please form your own conclusions.

I think he’s done a great job of this – I come away from the book thinking that nuclear power has great potential but man, we need to find a way to engineer human stupidity out of it. Whether it’s worth the try is left up to the reader.

I cannot review this book without mentioning the footnotes – don’t skip them! Some are more information or links to videos, and others are tidbits that are awesome but wouldn’t fit anywhere else. For example:

It is difficult to find a cross-section view of the Fermi 1 reactor that does not have a big X drawn through the refueling car. It was not a popular accessory.

I leave you to find the 1975 geek joke on your own.