Book Review: Ticker

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial HeartTicker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The person who comes up with a way to replace a failing heart with an artificial one, then, will save countless lives and change the future of humankind, much as Louis Pasteur or Sigmund Freud did, or Jonas Salk or Marie Curie. And, of course, the doctor or engineer (or, more likely, the team) who figures out how to make one will likely become very, very rich.”

This is what we are presented with in Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz. The book tells the sordid history of a group of surgeons all vying to become the god-like creator of the first artificial heart. Swartz is a stunning and detailed researcher and the book flows well throughout the decades. She starts with the birth of Michael Debakey and Denton Cooley as the “bad boys: of cardiac surgery in Houston. From there, Swartz takes the reader on the stunning and sometimes vaguely unethical battle to be the best, to beat the competition, and to cash in for as much money as humanly possible. My only disappointment is that the book just seemed to end with no conclusion. That could be due to the unfinished tale of the artificial heart but it still could have wrapped up a bit better in my opinion.

I had some knowledge going into the book as my husband’s uncle was on the ground floor of Baylor’s race to be the best in cardiac care but much of the information was new to me. Readers who have grown up in Houston will know the cast of characters and possibly even the history of the cardiac teams that come into play. This book is not for the faint of heart, however. These are real people that have been used as guinea pigs and sometimes, that’s disheartening and upsetting. Know going into it that the early days of heart surgery were akin to the Wild West and not everyone was on the up-and-up.

*I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*


Book Review: Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family SecretsPatient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was nothing short of amazing. I’m extremely interested in neuroscience and the history of the lobotomy — this book was the perfect intersection. Having read several books on memory and lobotomies, I was already familiar with the case of H.M. but this book explored who H.M. was as a person which was never allowed to enter into the scientific case studies.

Author Luke Dittrich writes from a very personal place since it was his own grandfather, Dr. Scoville, who performed the lobotomy on Patient H.M. and so many others, including his severely ill wife. In that sense, Dittrich often comes across at angry and occasionally petulant in his desire to defend all the good that his grandfather did while also mourning the horrors inflicted on unsuspecting patients.

This book is also raises important questions regarding medical and scientific ethics. The woman “in charge” of H.M.’s care during the final years of his life, was the woman whose career exploded into the limelight thanks to her research on H.M.. She also assigned H.M.’s guardian who was a man who was not at all invested in his care. This “scientist” closely guarded her own research and access to H.M. to keep others from learning more about the enigmatic patient. Dittrich also brought to light the possibility that research data might have been falsified. However, we’ll never know since she destroyed nearly all the records and test data prior to her death.

As an avid reader of science and history books, this was a wonderful read. Dittrich brings in enough science to keep those in the field engaged but he also makes it approachable for the causal reader. Writing from a very personal space, Dittrich brings to life the wonderful man known to most only as H.M.. Dittrich balances his disdain for his grandfather’s procedures with facts, figures, and light-hearted tales of growing up as Dr. Scoville’s grandson. Patient H.M. is an important tale of science gone awry and the dangers of being on the bleeding edge of medicine.

Book Review: Mercies in Disguise

Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued ThemMercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family’s Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them by Gina Kolata

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If there was a strong possibility that you carried a defective gene that causes a disease that leads to an early painful and prolonged decline and ultimately an untimely death, would you want to know? If you have the gene, it’s not a matter of if the disease strikes you, but when. So, which path do you choose? It’s not an easy question, even hypothetically, but that is the very real situation in which Amanda Baxley finds herself at the beginning of Gina Kolata’s moving tale of a family’s battle to stop a killer gene in its tracks.

Mercies in Disguise takes readers on a journey to New Guinea where tribes were struck down by a mysterious disease known only as kuru. From there, readers follow the path scientists took to discover what is known today as the “prion,” the culprit behind Mad Cow Disease, Chronic Wasting Disease, and Scrapie. Kolata also looks at the speculative future of prion disorders, thinking about how that might play into Alzheimer’s research going forward.

While the science is an important aspect to this book, the human element is by far the most interesting. The Baxley family has been struck down, one by one, over several generations by a mysterious and debilitating disease. Sometimes diagnosed as Alzheimer’s, sometimes diagnosed as Parkinson’s, and sometimes diagnosed as Alzheimer’s complicated by Parkinson’s the Baxley’s are in need of answers before the disease claims another victim. In a family of doctors, they begin to experiment on themselves. Finally, a genetic link is found leaving the next generation, that of Amanda and her siblings, to decide what to do with their knowledge while simultaneously watching their father die after losing their uncles to the same terrifying disease.

Gina Kolata balances the science and the human extremely well. There is enough science and technical jargon for someone in the medical field but she also breaks down the medical facts in a way that is approachable for the casual reader. Kolata primarily follows Amanda’s struggle which allows the reader to really develop a personal connection with the family. From the very first line, this book drew me in and refused to let me go until the final word. Certainly a must read!