cover image WALK ON WATER: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit

WALK ON WATER: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit

Michael Ruhlman, M. Ruhlman, . . Viking, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03201-3

What kind of person operates on babies' hearts for a living? This is the question Ruhlman set out to answer when he entered the pediatric heart center at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, to observe Dr. Roger Mee, one of the best pediatric heart surgeons in the world, and his team at work. Ruhlman, who has written two other books about people striving for excellence (The Soul of a Chef and Wooden Boats), describes with awe the precision, speed and ingenuity required to repair or transplant an infant's tiny heart. His gripping OR scenes capture the life-and-death nature of each surgery and illustrate why only perfection is good enough in this new and rapidly developing specialty. As the clinic's physician's assistant tells Ruhlman with a bluntness characteristic of the people he depicts, "This is a kid, not a Yugo here." The anguish the families endure only adds to the pressure on the surgeons. And while congenital heart defects are the most common kind of birth defect, the book reveals that most parents are unaware of the vast difference between having surgery performed by "a virtuoso" like Dr. Mee and an average surgeon whom a local cardiologist might feel compelled to refer patients to because of HMO protocols. Ruhlman also provides some historical context, weaving in the stories of the maverick surgeons who pioneered the specialty. Although the medical terminology can slow the reader down at times, most will tear through this engaging and often wrenching account. (Apr.)

Forecast:As in his previous books, Ruhlman breathes life into this narrative. A six-city author tour and, most likely, serials will be sure to breathe life into sales.