Err to learn

I wouldn’t tell you how good Blood and Guts: A history of surgery is. I would much rather let it speak for itself; my favourite passage among the many in this book is the ‘Night of the Pigs’, which takes place at the National Heart Hospital in London, 1969. Surgeon Donald Longmore is hoping to successfully graft a pig’s heart and lungs into a patient, who is all prepped and lying on the operating table.

As Longmore anxiously awaits the arrival of the pig to make history, the said animal has other ideas: he makes a run for his life. ‘Reluctant to make its own valuable contribution to medical progress, the pig had escaped. It is surprising how fast a pig can run, especially when its life is at stake. Still dressed in their operating theatre gowns, caps, mask and boots, the entire surgical team gave chase.

‘The pig ran as fast as its little legs could carry, but was no match for London’s finest heart surgeons, who eventually caught him halfway up the road. The pig squealed in protest but Longmore herded it back towards the hospital. It was five o’clock in the evening and people were heading home from work, so the street was relatively busy.

Most passers-by paid little attention to the odd group in the road. Only one gentleman seemed a little perturbed. Raising his bowler hat, he said ‘Excuse me, sir. You are going the wrong way along a one-way street.’

‘Arriving at the mortuary, Longmore had arranged for an anaesthetist to put the pig to sleep so that it could be killed and its organs removed. When the anaesthetist showed up, he turned out to be Jewish. He refused to kill the pig. Another anaesthetist was found… The heart and lungs were eventually removed from the pig, but now there was another problem: the patient was also Jewish… so rather than panic (or pray), Longmore did the next best thing — he rang a rabbi.

‘When Longmore explained what they were trying to do, the rabbi went quiet. The surgeon apologised for putting him in such a difficult position and understood if he didn’t want to get involved. There was another long, somewhat muffled silence. Finally the rabbi could hold back no longer. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was trying to stop laughing.’ Eventually, the rabbi reasoned that if it was a genuine attempt to save the life of a patient, there was no problem.

Clearly, if you have read so far and are sporting a grin there should be no doubt that Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery is an academic venture that has not been in vain. Published to accompany a five-part BBC television series of the same title, the work deftly logs the advances and evolution in the field surgery and impels one to consider medical history to be far more interesting than it is made out to be in popular culture.

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