Book Review by Dinali Panagodage – “Heart: A History”

Year 5D medical student Dinali Panagodage shares her thoughts on Sandeep Jauhar’s book, chronicling medicine’s understanding of the human heart. This piece was first published in The Auricle’s May-June Edition.

I’m not entirely sure whether this is something that happens to every medical student, but I personally find that as I am reaching the end of my degree, I’m looking everywhere for assurance that a lifelong career in medicine is indeed something to look forward to.

Medical autobiographies are therefore very enlightening. They provide the opportunity for physicians and healthcare workers to share their incredible stories and bring light to the sacrifices this field requires. These autobiographies are certainly holding a strong position on the bookshelves these days, and deservedly so.

Dr Sandeep Jauhar’s Heart: A History opens with Jauhar’s own health scare, the story of which he is all too familiar with: a middle aged man presents with increasing shortness of breath on exertion, who finds out he has significant coronary arterial calcification. Dr Jauhar is a cardiologist and opinion writer for the New York Times, a 9/11 first responder, and the author of three memoirs detailing his experiences throughout his medical career.

This is no ordinary memoir, however. Scattered in-between Dr Jauhar’s stories and own personal experiences, we slowly learn not only about the heart itself, but of the risks and sacrifices that were required to discover the cardiovascular technological advancements that we take for granted today. Jauhar writes in a way where we can see that he’s aware of the delicacy of the subject matter; too much med-ification and the heart becomes nothing more than a glorified pump.

Dr Jauhar takes us through how every discovery and every intervention required someone to ask a difficult clinical question (and sometimes also slightly unhinged: see Werner Forssmann, who developed cardiac catheterisation by doing it to himself). Each chapter begins with a riveting medical story that feels like an action-packed cold opening of a tv show.

“we slowly learn not only about the heart itself, but of the risks and sacrifices that were required to discover … advancements that we take for granted today”

For example, we join Dr Jauhar on Christmas Eve, emergently operating on a patient with infective endocarditis in a quiet but purposeful theatre. It’s in this theatre that we meet the heart-lung machine, and Dr Jauhar takes us on the journey of its invention spanning across decades. Taken back to the 1930s, we learn that the heart-lung machine began with the insane concept of linking one person’s blood supply to another’s (much like a mother and a foetus), and ends with a full-fledged machine that allows surgeons to operate on an arrested heart.

Heart: A History is the kind of memoir that legitimises the journey through medical school, makes you excited to see the discoveries to come, and the possibility to be part of something new. I recommend Dr Sandeep Jauhar’s memoir to anyone fascinated by medical history, and I hope that it captures your heart as much as it did mine.

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