An outstanding memoir by a transplant surgeon who combines an autobiography and operating room dramatics with an equally engrossing history of his profession.
In his first book, Mezrich (Surgery/Univ. of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health) avoids standard-issue jokes about motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets but reminds readers that, except for the occasional live donor, a tragedy usually precedes every transplant. “Someone who had just died had saved the life of someone he had never met,” he writes, “and we were the ones that made it happen.” The author touches all bases with a masterly hand. He trained as a surgery resident, undergoing the usual mixture of servitude and inspiration. He graduated to a fellowship, during which skill and satisfaction increased with no decrease in the workload. Readers will share the author’s exhilaration at the end of a procedure when, for example, the clamps are released, blood flow turns a new kidney pink, and urine flows out before his eyes. At intervals, the author digresses, offering a cogent history of transplants. These sections will enthrall most readers save animal rights proponents, who will recoil at the myriad of animals sacrificed along the way. However, plenty of human recipients also died miserably, except for the rare identical twin, in the decades before doctors realized that they required immunosuppression. About half died during the 1960s and ’70s, when surgeons used early versions of anti-rejection drugs. After the first effective immunosuppressant, cyclosporine, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1983, success rates exceeded 90 percent. As a result, transplanting many organs has become routine. Still, recent doctor-authors give equal time to failures, so Mezrich recounts plenty of painful experiences. Medical memoirs have become a significant genre over the past two decades, and this one ranks near the top, in a class that includes arguably the best, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2015).