Saturday, August 8, 2015

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

Do No Harm:  Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
by Henry Marsh
New York: St. Martin's, 2014. 276 pgs.

Henry Marsh is a British neurosurgeon who uses this book to describe, by way of various cases throughout his career, how incredibly difficult brain surgery is, and how terrible the consequences of mistakes and bad luck. Although his tone and manner suggest that he has the ego necessary for someone taking on such a profession, he rats himself out plenty. Stories of a young woman who was paralyzed on her right side for no apparent reason, after his surgery or of a former patient he sees curled in a fetal position at a nursing home a number of years after an unsuccessful surgery haunt him. When he is chosen to be interviewed for a television show he tells so many stories of sorrows and disasters in the prep interviews that the producers finally ask him for something more cheerful, which he is able to provide an account of a young pregnant woman who was going blind from a tumor pressing against her optic nerve. Her baby was delivered Caesarean before the operation began, and the delicate operation was performed with such precision that she regained her sight completely. Though Dr. Marsh was very detailed in his explanations, I sometimes wished for something more - when the liquid has to be siphoned from around the brain to make room for the surgeon's instruments, how is it reconstituted, for example? Poignant stories of his own son's brain tumor, and his mother's death from cancer are deeply felt sections of Marsh's text. I really liked this book and learned a lot from it. It is sometimes heartening, and often sad; the controlling principle of the book seems to be that one must make mistakes to learn from them and to become better, but that mistakes in Dr. Marsh's business can have harrowing consequences. Dr. Marsh also takes sometimes humorous, often maddened exception to Britain's National Health Service stupidities.  An excellent read.


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