cover image The Surgeons: Life and Death in a Top Heart Center

The Surgeons: Life and Death in a Top Heart Center

Charles R. Morris, . . Norton, $24.95 (317pp) ISBN 978-0-393-06562-6

To get a nuts-and-bolts understanding of heart surgeons—from the decisions they make in the operating room to the impact of colleagues, patients and pharmaceutical companies on their jobs—Morris (The Tycoons ) “embedded” himself for six months in the elite cardiac surgery center at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in New York City. Unlike some noncardiac surgeries where music blares in the operating room, an aortic valve replacement for a retired pharmacy executive, says Morris, is a solemn affair, the calm briefly interrupted only when the patient fibrillates, his heart muscle fibers fluttering irregularly. The author finds it “exhilarating” to watch as a surgeon “basically built... a new heart” for a five-day-old baby with a major heart malformation. But even technical marvels can't save a desperately ill four-year-old girl after a heart transplant. The reserved Craig Smith, the unit's head, who gained national fame when he performed a quadruple bypass on former President Clinton, impresses readers with his skill and deep concern for his patients. From detailing the workings of the heart's chambers and valves to the bald economics of cardiac surgery—including Smith's income ($1.5 million in 2004), the hospital's billing and collection procedures and forecasts on universal health insurance—Morris masterfully breaks down complex jargon, procedures and policies for a lay audience. (Oct.)