I don’t read a lot on non-fiction, and if I do pick up something of that nature, it’s usually because I’m extremely interested in that particular topic, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when my book group chose to read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery for our book this month.
What is it like to be a brain surgeon?
How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut through the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?
How do you live with the consequences when it all goes wrong?
Do No Harm offers an unforgettable insight into the highs and lows of a life dedicated to operating on the human brain, in all its exquisite complexity. With astonishing candour and compassion, Henry Marsh reveals the exhilarating drama of surgery, the chaos and confusion of a busy modern hospital, and above all the need for hope when faced with life’s most agonising decisions.
I’ll admit, I was pleasantly surprised! This is a well-written account of one man’s experiences in this field or medicine. And Marsh delivers his account in a very matter of fact way. Clearly there are some patients who he has been more attached to over the years, but even with those he maintains a relatively neutral tone. Whilst this might sound as though it would be a bit dry, it’s anything but, and I found it to be as tense as the best psychological thrillers as I became invested in each patient and their situation.
Throughout, Marsh is extremely open and honest about the mistakes he’s made, although the patient details are protected. I imagine that elements of this book were painful to write, and whilst I’m sure that this book doesn’t cover even a fraction of the patients he’s operated on, he does share both good and bad outcomes. And reading his accounts of the various kinds of operations that he has dealt with, the reader comes to understand how any slight mistake can have a devastating impact. Unfortunately, mistakes are easy to make, as the surgeon is often operating within a few millimetres of space at most and they are as fallible as the rest of us. That said, I think that the overall message imparted here is one of hope, as we can now treat so many patients that we couldn’t have done in years gone past.
Whilst it isn’t central to the book, Marsh also documents his frustration with the increasing bureaucracy that he has had to deal with over time, and the red tape that hinders, rather than helps, him and his patients. He doesn’t focus on this, nor does he rant and rave about it, but from what he does say, it’s clearly extremely frustrating for him, and understandably so. Whilst some of the measures he talks about make sense, such as steps taken to reduce infections on a hospital ward, there are others that do seem completely bonkers and come across as box-ticking exercises on behalf of the management.
Whilst Do No Harm is not my usual kind of book, it’s one that I’m glad that I’ve read. It’s both informative and easy to read, and I think that it removes a little of the mystery, if not the complexity, from this incredibly difficult field of medicine. And, note to self, if ever in the situation where surgery (brain or otherwise) is an option, ALWAYS ask the surgeon what they would do.