When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon

At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve...

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Title:When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon
Author:Joshua D. Mezrich
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When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon Reviews

  • Susan LeGrand Levine

    This book describes in detail the heroes (and their stories)who blazed the trail of transplantation. Being a donor and having a healthy husband is my reward. Thanks Josh for your part in making this a reality to our family. This book helps me understand so much better what went on at UW Hospital-Madison May 23rd, 2012. I’m forever grateful.

  • Petra-X

    This is both about the history of transplantation and about the author's training as a transplant surgeon, both are equally interesting. We all know the details of "harvesting" organs, although now they say 'procuring' as it doesn't sound quite so like the organs are just there for the taking. There isn't any point in a long review as what is written is what we know, it's just more detail (interesting) with stories of some of the patients.

    Two problems that started at the first successful

    This is both about the history of transplantation and about the author's training as a transplant surgeon, both are equally interesting. We all know the details of "harvesting" organs, although now they say 'procuring' as it doesn't sound quite so like the organs are just there for the taking. There isn't any point in a long review as what is written is what we know, it's just more detail (interesting) with stories of some of the patients.

    Two problems that started at the first successful transplant and remain unsolved are that of rejection and the fact you can't really live a completely normal life. The drugs that stop rejection must be taken for life and not even a single dose can be missed.The drugs are immunosuppressants which means that among other side effects, resistance to infections is greatly lowered. The life expectancy of a person with a transplanted heart is under 10 years, transplanted kidneys can go for up to 20 years.

    For how life really is read

    . The author, Amy Silverstein had a heart transplant at 24, and in a very fierce book, writes how life really is with heart disease, a heart transplant, recovery and adjusting to life with it.

    The book is beautifully-written, the author is a naturally talented writer which adds to the enjoyment of the book.

    We should all leave our organs for transplantation. If your religion says you can't, then think, what kind of god would not want you to give life to another? I'm sure he'd forgive you.

  • Gina

    There is a reason this book has a 96% 5-star rating on Amazon.

    As someone who has been interested in medicine since I was a young child, I tend to read a lot of books such as this one. This is one of the best I've read in the field of organ transplants.

    While you will learn about the pioneers in the field in this book, you will also read about what it means to be a person on a waiting list for an organ transplant, and the feeling that someone else needs to die so that you can live. Of course, this

    There is a reason this book has a 96% 5-star rating on Amazon.

    As someone who has been interested in medicine since I was a young child, I tend to read a lot of books such as this one. This is one of the best I've read in the field of organ transplants.

    While you will learn about the pioneers in the field in this book, you will also read about what it means to be a person on a waiting list for an organ transplant, and the feeling that someone else needs to die so that you can live. Of course, this is not true in all cases, as living donors are now common for liver and single kidney transplants, but anyone needing an organ to live must grapple with the fact that someone else must either sacrifice a portion of one of their own organs, or someone else must die.

    This book is, as you might expect, about what it is like to be on the front lines of organ transplants: the waiting, the phone call that may come at any moment and activates such a chain of events leading up to saving a life, and even what loved ones of the patients go through as they watch someone slowly deteriorate. It is a delicate balance - if the patient becomes too sick, they are off the list as they are unlikely to survive the surgery. If the patient isn't sick enough, they take a back seat to someone who is closer to death but still well enough to have a fighting chance of surviving the surgery.

    For people who become organ donors, it is the ultimate gift. For parents or loved ones who are asked, at the worst possible moment in their lives, if their loved one would want to donate organs, we must thank them for saying "yes" to donation.

    You may think this book is about death, but it is not. It is about hope and never, ever giving up. It is about scientists and physicians who have made organ transplant possible. And it is about those who are no longer with us physically, but who live on in the lives they saved.

  • Tina

    This was so cool. I love books about medicine and doctors and often find them pretty enjoyable. But THIS was humorous and interesting and obviously well-researched.

  • Rebecca

    In this debut memoir a surgeon surveys the history of organ transplantation, recalling his own medical education and the special patients he’s met along the way. In the 1940s and 1950s patient after patient was lost to rejection of the transplanted organ, post-surgery infection, or hemorrhaging. Mezrich marvels at how few decades passed between transplantation seeming like something out of a science-fiction future and becoming a commonplace procedure. His aim is to never lose his sense of wonder

    In this debut memoir a surgeon surveys the history of organ transplantation, recalling his own medical education and the special patients he’s met along the way. In the 1940s and 1950s patient after patient was lost to rejection of the transplanted organ, post-surgery infection, or hemorrhaging. Mezrich marvels at how few decades passed between transplantation seeming like something out of a science-fiction future and becoming a commonplace procedure. His aim is to never lose his sense of wonder at the life-saving possibilities of organ donation, and he conveys that awe to readers through his descriptions of a typical procedure. One day I will likely need a donated kidney to save my life. How grateful I am to live at a time when this is a possibility.

    See my full review at

    . (See also

    of other books, fiction and non-, featuring organ donation.)

  • April Greissinger

    Big thanks to Harper Books for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review!

    I LOVED this book and I will definitely be thinking about it for a long time! I am in the medical field and I love reading about anything medical, from healthcare provider's experiences to any past history regarding the field. When I saw this book was coming out, I was extremely excited and had to get my hands on a copy! I love learning new things through books and I didn't know that much about

    Big thanks to Harper Books for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review!

    I LOVED this book and I will definitely be thinking about it for a long time! I am in the medical field and I love reading about anything medical, from healthcare provider's experiences to any past history regarding the field. When I saw this book was coming out, I was extremely excited and had to get my hands on a copy! I love learning new things through books and I didn't know that much about surgery before reading this one. But man did I learn a lot! Dr. Mezrich gave so much history about the first heart/liver/lung/pancreas transplants and it was so interesting! It definitely felt drier at times since the material is pretty dense, but it was very interesting and informative. The history made me reflect on the way that the medical field has changed so much over the years, and it was so crazy to read about the first procedures and about these courageous surgeons! So much new medical information has been gained from these doctors in the past and it is incredible what they started many years ago. I wish they could see how things have changed now and how much of an impact they have made in the field today. I loved having these stories interspersed with Dr. Mezrich's experiences throughout the book. I definitely skimmed some of the history and looked more forward to his personal experiences throughout, but I love that he really delved into the past so you could get a better picture about how everything got started.

    My favorite sections of the book were his interactions with all of the different patients! I loved reading about how grateful and excited pancreas patients are about getting these new organs. I loved how he dove deeper into this information since so many people have diabetes today, and I run into so many people through rescue and in the hospitals with diabetes. I loved reading about the ethical dilemmas about alcoholics receiving new livers and learned so much through these chapters. It made me reflect on patients that I have seen in the past and how there still need to be some changes made to really help these people overcome these addictions - more than just putting a bandaid on the problem with a new organ as he put it in the book. There was so much hope filled throughout these pages with people getting new organs and the new life they get to experience because of it. I also loved that he loves surgery because he says he is able to develop lifelong relationships with these patients. This is something I am excited to do hopefully one day as a Physician Assistant.

    I LOVED this book but couldn't get it 5 stars because multiple times the title Physician Assistant was misused, which is a bit problem of mine since this is my future profession. This is just a minor issue but something that is big to me and I bet lots of other PAs out there.

    HIGHLY recommend this book if you are interested in the medical field and learning new things about surgery! Also if you love stories filled with hope and new beginnings. I think this book will make you reflect on your life and maybe some of the people that have impacted you in many important ways.

  • Ryan Boissonneault

    It is an underappreciated fact that today a surgeon can, if needed, rip open your chest, remove your heart, replace it with another one, and if all goes well, have you discharged in 10 days. This amazing feat of modern medicine, one we may rarely think about, was at one point thought to be nothing more than a science fiction fantasy—and rightly so.

    The number of hurdles standing in the way of successful transplantation was enormous. These included figuring out how to suture together blood

    It is an underappreciated fact that today a surgeon can, if needed, rip open your chest, remove your heart, replace it with another one, and if all goes well, have you discharged in 10 days. This amazing feat of modern medicine, one we may rarely think about, was at one point thought to be nothing more than a science fiction fantasy—and rightly so.

    The number of hurdles standing in the way of successful transplantation was enormous. These included figuring out how to suture together blood vessels without leakage or damage to the inner lining, how to keep patients alive by temporarily taking over the function of failed organs (dialysis for kidneys and cardiopulmonary bypass for the heart and lungs), and developing anti-rejection medication to prevent the host immune system from attacking the donated organ. Throw in the ethical and logistical issues associated with procuring and coordinating donated organs and recipient transplant lists and you have one of the most complex and daunting issues in the history of medicine.

    If you’re like me, at some point you’ve pondered the details of the first transplantation, when and where it was performed, and who was bold enough to carry it out, along with the details about how they could have possibly figured all of this out. In When Death Becomes Life, transplant surgeon Joshua D. Mezrich answers these questions and more, telling the story of his own development as a transplant surgeon along with the history of the subject and the pioneers that made it all possible. Mezrich also catalogues the incredible stories of courageous patients and heroic donors that risked everything for a chance to live and save life.

    The journey to successful transplantation was anything but easy, both in general and for Mezrich in particular. The success rates, while higher today, were extremely low for most of the history of transplantation (and particularly before the development of immunosuppression medications). Mezrich tells the stories of not only the successes but also of the disappointments and deaths, and how emotionally taxing the profession can be. (Mezrich particularly drives home the point when he recounts the first patient he killed.)

    But far from being a demoralizing book, When Death Becomes Life is a testimony to human perseverance, both individually and collectively. Every failed experiment, unsuccessful operation, and accidental death brings with it the opportunity to learn and advance, and we are living during a period of time where we can witness the culmination of this sacrifice. Today, for example, the one-year survival rate for heart transplant recipients is 85 to 90 percent, compared to about 30 percent in the 1970s. Just imagine the emotional toll of having 7 out of 10 of your patients die within a year of you working on them. Today you can successfully extend the life of 9 out of 10.

    This drives home a larger message; namely, that the conveniences and privileges we take for granted today were intensely and passionately fought for, and that future progress depends on the application of the same passion and perseverance. Constant vigilance—in medicine as in all areas of life—is the only way forward to a future that is better than the present.

    Mezrich ends the book by contemplating the future of transplantation, including the possibility of xenotransplants (transplants between species). Pigs represent the most promising donor, and with advances in genetic engineering, we may be able to one day manipulate a pig’s genes to create organs compatible with our own immune systems. If this sounds like science fiction, so did the prospect of heart transplantation between two humans, not that long ago.

  • India Clamp

    Consider five lives can be impacted positively with a body donation via surgical transplantation. While Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich covers over 100 years of surgical transplant history and entices you into the OR to witness the “perfusion of a kidney” post-transplant. Here anything lacking perfection equates to morbid outcomes (for patient and surgeon).

    "The liver will start pouring bile. The lungs start essentially breathing, the most dramatic organ, of course, is the heart, because you put it in and

    Consider five lives can be impacted positively with a body donation via surgical transplantation. While Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich covers over 100 years of surgical transplant history and entices you into the OR to witness the “perfusion of a kidney” post-transplant. Here anything lacking perfection equates to morbid outcomes (for patient and surgeon).

    "The liver will start pouring bile. The lungs start essentially breathing, the most dramatic organ, of course, is the heart, because you put it in and you kind of ...give a little shock and it just starts beating, and that's pretty darn dramatic."

    ---Joshua D. Mezrich, MD

    Reflecting on “When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon” the book unravels like a vine in a most riveting way. It engages us to question, should a chronically alcoholic woman receive a donor liver? Mezrich recalls his patients with accuracy like “patient is yellow as a banana” and why this is---medically significant.

    At University of Wisconsin at Madison Dr. Mezrich orchestrates medical thaumaturgy via expunging organs from death and infusing them with life in new bodies. Gratitude is a quotidian elixir he gives throughout this documented transplant surgery adventure. Must read, reflect and engage others to dialogue. Note, this is not for sensitive types.

  • Kazen

    3.5 stars

    Books by doctors who wield scalpels are some of my favorites, and Mezrich does a great job introducing the reader to the history and current practice of transplant surgery.

    The good:

    - This is not a comprehensive history of transplantation, nor a memoir, nor a collection of patient stories. It's equal parts of each, allowing us to get an overview of the field in a personal, relatable way.

    - Transplant surgery is amazing, and Mezrich obviously loves his job and sharing that wonder and

    3.5 stars

    Books by doctors who wield scalpels are some of my favorites, and Mezrich does a great job introducing the reader to the history and current practice of transplant surgery.

    The good:

    - This is not a comprehensive history of transplantation, nor a memoir, nor a collection of patient stories. It's equal parts of each, allowing us to get an overview of the field in a personal, relatable way.

    - Transplant surgery is amazing, and Mezrich obviously loves his job and sharing that wonder and excitement with us. It's almost like he's going, 'Look! Isn't this cool?' And it is.

    - The pioneers of the field, like most doctors in the 1960s and 70s, were men, so I appreciate that he takes the time to acknowledge a woman who is leading the field today and has some bad ass stories of her own.

    - The pacing is good and the switches between history, patient stories, and his training are well done. I never thought, 'go back!' or, 'ugh, history again'. It all fits together.

    - Mezrich doesn't shy away from ethical issues. Some of the first donors didn't give consent, exactly, and organs were taken from people who died in prison as a matter of course. When the field was first getting established there wasn't even an accepted definition of brain death. Not all the controversy is in the past - do you give a new liver to an alcoholic? How much risk do you let a living donor take on in order to save their spouse?

    - Overall the tone is upbeat. He doesn't tear our hearts out or leave us in suspense about the outcome of a case, which I appreciate. My eyes did leak a bit while reading the chapter about donors because the details are beautiful and touching. For example, before starting the operation to procure organs the doctors, nurses, ICU team, and other staff that took care of the patient will pause and say something about the donor. Often they'll read a poem or express thoughts from the family, and many will have tears in their eyes as they start.

    - There are no spiels about how everyone should donate their kidneys or anything like that. He accepts organs as they come, and always with a sense of gratitude and respect for the donors.

    - The author seems like a nice guy which is saying a lot, because there are bunches of surgeons who write books that don't seem like nice guys. He acknowledges the rest of his team and thanks them often, as well as share funny, self-deprecating stories.

    The not-so-good:

    - As much as I enjoyed this book (a lot!) I'm not sure it will stick with me. It's missing that ineffable something that screams four star read.

    If you like books about medicine, look forward to the Wellcome Prize longlist, or are just curious about transplantation, you'll want to pick up

    .

  • Katie/Doing Dewey

    Summary: This book was a mixed bag for me, with some parts that were far more interesting than others and a tone that varied from too formal to too informal to spot on.

    This is one of the many recent releases in what is becoming one of my favorite genres, memoir plus an intro to another topic. In this case, transplant surgeon Joshua Mezrich combines his professional memoir with a history of transplant surgery and some of his patients' stories. This blend gives the reader a glimpse of both the

    Summary: This book was a mixed bag for me, with some parts that were far more interesting than others and a tone that varied from too formal to too informal to spot on.

    This is one of the many recent releases in what is becoming one of my favorite genres,  memoir plus an intro to another topic. In this case, transplant surgeon Joshua Mezrich combines his professional memoir with a history of transplant surgery and some of his patients' stories. This blend gives the reader a glimpse of both the technical aspects of transplant surgery and the day-to-day human experience of receiving, donating, and transplanting organs.

    I immediately suspected this book was going to be a mix of good and bad based on the author's tone. Within the first few chapters, the author had already used a lot of technical terms (anatomy and surgery descriptions) without bothering to define them. He'd also gone to the other extreme, using flip, casual language that was incongruous with the serious topic. This combination frequently showed up when the author was discussing the intricate details of doing surgery. The author also bounced back and forth between sounding sympathetic for his patients and sounding callous. Based on the author's discussion of the difficulties of losing patients, I suspect both the callous-seeming sections and the sections that seemed too flip were his coping mechanisms showing.

    As a result of the poorly explained technical terms, the sections about doing surgery were my least favorite. They were a bit of a slog. Without pictures, it was hard to imagine what was going on. The history sections were more engaging, although there were a lot of experiments on animals. Fortunately, they weren't described in too much detail. However, my favorite parts were definitely the sections focused on the author's patients, both the organ donors and recipients. These chapters were particularly moving. We got to see people going through some of the most challenging life experiences and in many cases, making some good come of them. I also thought the author was the most sympathetic in these sections.

    Overall, this was a fascinating topic and the personal bits were very good. The poorly explained technical parts just didn't live up to the rest. I'd still recommend it to people who like medical memoirs, but I suspect there are better ones you might pick up first.

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