Fragile lives

I have never written a book review and in fact never left a comment on ‘Goodreads’, however this book I HAVE to talk about.

Fragile lives: A heart surgeon’s stories of live and death on the operating table by Professor Stephan Westaby. This book is a memoir from one of the worlds prestigious heart surgeons and the most remarkable cases he has worked on.

The balance between life and death is so delicate, and the heart surgeon walks that rope between the two. In the operating room there is no time for doubt. It is flesh, blood, rib-retractors and pumping the vital organ with your bare hand to squeeze the life back into it. An off-day can have dire consequences – this job has a steep learning curve, and the cost is measured in human life. Cardiac surgery is not for the faint of heart.

The book talks about professor Stephan Westaby taking chances and pushing the boundaries with heart surgery. He saved hundreds of lives over his 35 year long career.

So I guess you may be wondering why on earth I picked this book off the shelf? However for those that know me know I had heart surgery as an infant.

At 3 months old I had open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect called ALCAPA – Anomalous left coronary artery of the pulmonary artery. It is a rare cardiac malformation where the developing blood vessels in the heart do not connect correctly. In a normal heart the left coronary artery starts in the aorta which is a major blood vessel that takes oxygen from the heart to the rest of the body.

Basically, my body was not getting enough oxygen and was beginning to stop functioning. Surgeons and doctors saved my life that day and ever since I have led what I believe is a very healthy and normal life.

However, this does not mean there are not questions I ask most days and worries I have for the future. I saw this book and I felt compelled to read it – wanting to explore other peoples stories and maybe have some of my queries answered.

The book was honest and in some parts, I won’t lie – hard to read.

Professor Westaby gave incredible accounts of his blunt honesty of his mental removal of feelings when entering the operating theatre – on the other hand, I found myself going through all sorts of emotions. Laughing, which I didn’t think I would at such a serious subject and then in other chapters hysterically crying with the heart ache of the families and the trust that has to be placed with these surgeons.

It took me a long time to read this book. I got to chapters that seriously made my toes curl, I itched my scar and felt extremely uncomfortable.

Each chapter is an extraordinary real-life case exploring the patient’s diseases/problems and how the Professor addresses each one. I turned the page and there it was, the chapter I had been dreading “ALCAPA”. I closed the book.

I didn’t think I could read it – what would happen to the baby girl? Would it go into her future? Would it tell me things I’m not ready to hear? However I had to find out.

Kristy was a 6 months old baby girl and was ‘installed’ (as described by Westaby himself), with the same lethal self-destruct mechanism as myself. The chapter talks about her families struggle and emotional rollercoaster they went through to get her seen to and their wait in hospital.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my family and what I put them through at such a young age. The chapter goes into great detail about Kristy’s surgery, that I will not repeat incase some of you are squeamish – but man, it was hard to read as I looked down at my scar. Professor Westaby goes on to say he followed her and her development for many years after – her heart almost normal. I read into Kristy’s case and she is now a young women, the same as me, leading an active life.

After the chapter I got straight on the tinter-web and found some forums and Facebook groups of people of all ages that have suffered with or still suffer from ALCAPA and I was overwhelmed with the response to a post I sent out on the site. The strength of the survivors was astonishing, there was no real answers to the questions I asked only that other people have the same worries and questions about the future.

It’s very humbling to know you aren’t alone with your problems.


I managed to carry on reading the book and am so glad I managed to finish it. Nonetheless, I won’t go in to the other chapters incase you decide to pick this book up yourself.

Overall, whether you have been affected by heart surgery/heart disease or not, this book is an incredible insight to the pioneering work of Professor Westaby. What him and his team performed over the last 35 years and how it has helped cardiac research excel is astonishing. It is a well written book and takes you on the journey with Westaby feeling the frustration, exhaustion, despair and the distress he and his patients feel.

A strongly recommended read.

Ness x


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