Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby


My grateful thanks to Caroline Saramowicz at Harper Collins for a copy of Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby in return for an honest review. Fragile Lives is published in hardback by Harper Collins today, 9th February 2017, and is available for purchase by following the publisher links here.

Fragile Lives


An incredible memoir from one of the world’s most eminent heart surgeons and some of the most remarkable and poignant cases he’s worked on.

Grim Reaper sits on the heart surgeon’s shoulder. A slip of the hand and life ebbs away.

The balance between life and death is so delicate, and the heart surgeon walks that rope between the two. In the operating room there is no time for doubt. It is flesh, blood, rib-retractors and pumping the vital organ with your bare hand to squeeze the life back into it. An off-day can have dire consequences – this job has a steep learning curve, and the cost is measured in human life. Cardiac surgery is not for the faint of heart.

Professor Stephen Westaby took chances and pushed the boundaries of heart surgery. He saved hundreds of lives over the course of a thirty-five year career and now, in his astounding memoir, Westaby details some of his most remarkable and poignant cases – such as the baby who had suffered multiple heart attacks by six months old, a woman who lived the nightmare of locked-in syndrome, and a man whose life was powered by a battery for eight years.

A powerful, important and incredibly moving book, Fragile Lives offers an exceptional insight into the exhilarating and sometimes tragic world of heart surgery, and how it feels to hold someone’s life in your hands.

My Review of Fragile Lives

With thirty-five years working in heart medicine, Stephen Westaby shares his memories of his life and some of the patients he has encountered.

What an engaging portrait of an incredible man Fragile Lives is. Although it’s non-fiction, it is written with a skill that makes it read almost like fiction. The descriptions and characterisation are precise, engaging and affecting. The passage about Kirsty, for example, left me reeling.

I have to admit to feeling a little squeamish at one or two of the descriptions of operations, but then I can’t watch a needle inserted into skin on television. At times it felt like I was reading a horror book! There’s also quite a lot of technical detail woven into the text so that a reader can learn as well as be entertained, if entertained is the right word, by Fragile Lives. I enjoyed this aspect but feel others might find it distracting. For those who want to be precise in their reading there is a very helpful glossary of technical terms at the end of the book and I think those thinking of entering medicine would love reading this book in advance of their studies.

As heart surgery is not a medical field that always has success, Stephen Westaby explains the impact on the team behind the stories so well and I think Fragile Lives would be an enlightening read for those who prefer a blame and shame culture. Indeed, that is another of Stephen Westaby’s passions about which he writes very forcefully in the final few lines of his acknowledgements.

The quotations that head each chapter are inspired and if read consecutively, in one go, provide their own insight into the world of those involved in the different aspects of heart surgery, be it surgeon or patient. I found many of them very touching as I returned to them after having read the chapter.

I’m not sure that those expecting a biography all about Stephen Westaby will appreciate Fragile Lives because the reader sometimes has to read between, and behind, the lines to extract the man from the case he is presenting, but actually I liked the read more as a result. I’m not keen on biographies usually, but I found Fragile Lives interesting, frequently moving and totally enlightening. Fragile Lives gives incredible insight into a world I hope I never have to inhabit.

About Stephen Westaby


Professor Stephen Westaby is a world-famous heart surgeon who is renowned for being the first surgeon in history to fit a patient with a new type of artificial heart. During his 35-year career as a surgeon he worked at several of the UK’s top hospitals and performed over 11,000 heart operations. He won the Ray C. Fish Award for Scientific Achievement (2004). In 2004 Steve Westaby was featured in the BBC documentary Your Life in Their Hands, which is a long-running series on the subject of surgery.

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