Book Review: When Death Becomes Life

Thanks to Harper Books for the free review copy – as always all opinions are my own!

Author: Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich
Genre: Medical memoir
Pub Date: January 15, 2019
Feel Learn Wonder Rating: 5/5

For what it’s worth, I thought this book was incredible. For context, I’m an engineer and science lover, but have no knowledge of medicine outside of what I garnered from Grey’s Anatomy. Nonetheless, this book managed to keep me engaged while talking about totally new-to-me topics, and taught me so much valuable information that I’ll take forward with me in life.

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When Death Becomes Life is an anecdotal memoir of a transplant surgeon who became fascinated in the (surprisingly short) history of transplant surgery. He explains both the technical and social developments of the field and addresses many of the debates surrounding it, through a compelling and thoughtful narrative.

One of my favorite things about this book is the structure of it. I felt like Mezrich did a really great job laying out the story. You first learn about each of the commonly transplanted organs – in chronological order based on time of advancement, then you will move in to specific stories of surgeries: those of living and deceased donors and their recipients. I thought the layout was perfect because going in to the personal stories, you are equipped with the knowledge to make your own judgement on the stories.

Another thing that I liked about this story was how honest Mezrich was about his failures. Mezrich takes his failures both extremely seriously and totally in stride. I was impressed by both how much each surgery affected him, and also the way he was able to compartmentalize the failures to both show respect for those impacted and give the next patient the best care. He was also extremely honest, in my opinion, about how many things go wrong in routine surgery. At this point a kidney transplant is pretty low risk, but even in some of those cases, something out of the ordinary could happen and you have to immediately be ready for Plans B-Z. I had never really heard that side of surgery before, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Now I’ll just try to forget before myself or a loved one goes through it next!

In a few other reviews that I read, I heard a sense of disappointment at how much of the initial story is set in the past. As a history lover, I was totally fine with that and didn’t find it dry or overbearing at all. But, since I did see that a few times,¬† I wanted to include that here as fair warning that this book contains both entertaining surgical anecdotes¬†as well as a lot of technical history.

Overall, this book is one of the best nonfiction memoirs I’ve read in a long time. It was informative, personal, entertaining, and engaging – all the things I look for in a memoir. I already sent my copy off to a doctor-friend, and I know I’ll be buying this book for friends and relatives for years to come!

P.S. If you want a preview check out this episode on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast!