Fragile Lives – Stephen Westaby

Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating TableFragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table by Stephen Westaby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fair warning, this is definitely not one of those happy stories. The author explains the surgeries he has conducted in a very detailed manner and not all his patients survive. Reading this book did leave me feeling heartbroken and shaken up on some days. But to be fair it also left me feeling a lot better, a whole lot more grateful and appreciative of the gift that is life. In some of the cases, you can only admire the kind of grit it took for the individuals (both patient and caregivers) to fight again and again. You also appreciate the ingeniosity of the human mind and our technological progress.

Westaby narrates with precision. The technical details are well explained and in a few places, some googling helps especially if you do not have a background in medicine. This book certainly did not disappoint.

Having said that, we should not forget that this is an autobiography and like most self-written autobiographies, this is by definition the retelling of a skewed version of reality from one perspective. While it does seem genuine we should not forget that it is by nature limited by one person’s perspective and his subjective memories of the past. This is his interpretation of the events, his truth not necessarily the whole truth nor the objective truth.

I wish the author had focused more on some of his failures. The book focuses mostly on some of his most interesting/innovative cases leaving gaps to fill here and there in the timeline. I guess what I am saying is I would have appreciated more narratives, the simple ordinary cases and especially to get some of the patient’s perspectives and thoughts as well. That would have made this book a 5 star for me or maybe I just expect too much. Definitely a book I recommend reading, especially to those who are still under the wrong idea that the heart is what makes us have emotions, maybe it is about time to drop the red Hollywoodesque symmetrical thing and to meet and understand the real thing and to learn about the men with electric hearts and no pulse who still live and feel.

While reading this book and at the beginning being disturbed by the nature of contents, a good friend of mine asked me “why would I even read this? Why would I put myself through this” after all I am not training to be a doctor or anything. The following is my attempt to answer that question:

I did say it before when writing my review for “the memories of a Geisha”, I read to gain perspectives, even the bleak and uncomfortable ones. The more the merrier. In this limited lifetime that I have with the limited memory, perspective and knowledge I can acquire, what better choice than to gain a little from a surgeon and his patients. The suffering described here is a reality for some and who knows maybe can be one day mine or someone close to me as well. It is part of the human life, our own mortality and sets of miseries are. The way I see it is, we can either run from it and die without understanding others who had different lives at all or we can immerse ourselves in bits and pieces of what they offer and try our best to understand who they are/were as a person.

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