Book Review: Open Hearts

Open Hearts: The True Stories of the Surgery That Changes Children’s Lives

By Sofia Weiss Goitiandia

During the course of their pre-clinical training in anatomy, most medics will learn about the various congenital heart defects (CHDs) that exist, and how they may be treated in the 21st century. Later, as clinical medics, they may observe afflicted babies, and watch as their health improves after surgical and/or pharmacological intervention. In the context of what modern day medicine can do for CHD patients, it is all too easy to forget that well into the 1950s, a cognitive heart problem was – in most cases – a terminal diagnosis for a child.


Kate Bull uses Open Hearts to remind us of this fact, and to recount the development of treatments for CHD in a lively, accessible way. From the first successful open-heart operation on a child in 1954, where the circulation of a volunteer was connected to the boy’s to keep him alive, to the sophisticated surgical procedures that are used nowadays, Bull describes how the field has advanced in leaps-and-bounds in only a few decades. Her wonder at the audacity of the doctors involved is laced throughout her descriptions, and it is clear that Bull’s many years as a cardiologist have not reduced her enthusiasm for the profession. As a prospective doctor, this proves encouraging to read.


What is perhaps even more heartening, however, is how Bull is always attentive to the patient’s perspective. She provides a setting for their experiences to be heard, and is not shy of confronting the ethical issues that may arise in paediatric medicine: the fact that there may be problems with consent if parents do not discuss treatment options with their children, for example. She manages too, to account for the 21st century patient, detailing how closed Facebook groups are used by CHD patients to support each other, sometimes, over the course of a lifetime. In fact, Bull writes that “if there were an award for our era’s ‘best medical innovation, [she] would nominate patient groups.” Whilst not every reader will agree with this perspective, it is certainly a refreshing one.


Overall, Bull’s account is not only informative, with clear explanations and good diagrams, but also deeply humane. Readers are reminded that whilst children’s heart surgery may be seen as a medical triumph, for all the successful operations, thousands of pioneering patients have gone before, often facing their own uncertain futures. They are the heroes of medical progress.


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