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Book Review: The Matter of the Heart, by Thomas Morris

August 21, 2018

The mavericks of Heart Surgery come alive in this larger than life historical read following the biggest developments of arguably the largest growing field of Medicine in the 20th Century.


Thomas Morris has clearly done research of an almost unprecedented scale, and succeeds in uncovering some of the bizarre, fascinating and incredible stories of a field filled with huge characters and even larger ambition. Cardiothoracics and Cardiology underwent huge upheaval, change and technology booms throughout the past 100 years, from a position at the beginning of the 1900s where the heart was considered almost sacred, to the position now where the boundaries of what is possible are constantly being stretched - where not only can the heart be stopped and repaired, but removed from a deceased being and yet continue to sustain the life of another for years to come.


The book follows some of the largest developments in the field, from the early 'blue baby' operations by Alfred Blalock, in which the Blalock-Taussig Shunt turned Tetralogy of Fallot from an early death sentence to a relatively normal life, to the huge and incredible developments of Cardiac Catheterisation, including the use of TAVI. Other stops in the course of history include the early cardiac operations of wartime performed by Dwight Harken, the remarkable work of Michael DeBakey, Denton Cooley and Walt Lillehei, and of course the groundbreaking transplant operation of Christiaan Barnard.


But the book isn't just dominated by these ambitious and often egocentric characters - it also follows the unsung heroes of Heart Surgery. The stories of Jay McLean, who discovered heparin as a medical student but faded into the background of history, and of Werner Forssman, who placed a catheter into his own heart to prove that it was possible, capture the imagination as much as the biggest names and stories of the era.


This is more than just a fascinating history though - this is a tale of hope, of discovery and of overcoming impossibility. It is a story that shows us that it is possible to push the boundaries of the envelope, that impossible is nothing. But is is also a tale of caution - for all the successes there were many failures, for all patients who survived there were hundreds who did not.


By looking back on the past, Thomas Morris presents to us the future - what remains to be done, what boundaries still exist, and how perhaps a budding potential Cardiothoracic Surgeon or Cardiologist can learn from the past to change the future. 


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