‘Fragile Lives’ by Stephen Westaby

A few months back, I attended a book signing event at the Waterstones on Gower Street. Here, I was able to meet Dr Stephen Westaby in person and listen to him talk about his book ‘Fragile Lives’ and subsequently his career in cardiac surgery.

As one of the world’s most renowned cardiac surgeons he has performed pioneering operations, a majority of which include the use of artificial pumps. The book ‘Fragile Lives’ is a memoir which accounts for a few of the 11,000 operations he has conducted, whereby he tells us the story behind the ground-breaking procedures.

I found that every time I would stop to reflect on what I had read, what really stuck with me was Dr Westaby’s personality. One thing that is really apparent is how straightforward he is. This was similarly evident when listening to him talk about his book at the event. Usually, it can be quite odd to hear or read about a healthcare professionals’ personal opinions on a matter. During training, they are usually taught to suppress their own opinion and only carry with them a professional judgement. However, within this book Dr Westaby is very honest about his thoughts and feelings. It is refreshing to gain this insight, as it is this thought process which impacts and guides how decisions and actions are taken. Nowadays, medicine is moving towards a more transparent culture for both patients and doctors in hope that this will ensure clearer communication and hence more successful outcomes. The fact Dr Westaby has chosen to write in a very open style ensures the public and other professionals can get a candid understanding of what it is like to be a cardiac surgeon.

Another trait that is evident is his confidence. The operations he talks about within the book are some of the world’s first, therefore with no guideline or teaching, he had to design a strategy for each. However, theoretically planning and practically conducting a procedure are two entirely different concepts. The chances of the operations going wrong seemed greatly unavoidable yet Dr Westaby’s confidence even in the most difficult scenarios helped him prevail. The skill of being aware of his abilities but still trying to push himself out of his comfort zone to ensure a better welfare for his patients, is something worth looking up to. I believe that the doctors and professionals who have this confidence are the individuals who become vanguards for change. In a field like medicine whereby there are many obstacles to overcome in order to neutralise the resistance to change, this trait enables new ideas to come through. In the face of resistance, it is these individuals which allow medicine to grow and constantly move forward – as Dr Westaby has shown through his work with artificial pumps that have managed to prolong the lives of patients suffering from heart failure.

One of the biggest lessons I have taken away from this book is that experiences are valuable. In the earlier chapters Dr Westaby talks about his years prior to medical school whereby he worked as a porter and would also help out at the local hospital mortuary. Whilst reading the book, it was very clear to see that it was these experiences which had enforced his knowledge in different aspects of medicine, ones that are not usually taught through medical school modules. It is known that if you can see theoretical knowledge in context it helps strengthens your understanding and memory and I believe it was Westaby’s drive in the early stages of his medical career to always seek new learning experiences which helped make him a great surgeon.

Overall, this book has really shone light upon a few attributes a doctor or anyone should retain in order to succeed. From the beginning of his journey right up until the end, it is clear Dr Westaby was very motivated. As an individual who came from humble beginnings as the “back street boy from Scunthorpe”, with ambition, the right attitude and mind set he was able to become a recognised surgeon who massively contributed to medicine through methods and treatments he adopted in order to provide exceptional care for his patients.

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Now that the first year of medical school is over, I am finally able to get back to reading some more medical books! I have thoroughly missed doing this. With a long summer ahead of me, I look forward to reading plenty more books and so with that there will be a lot more blogging too!

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