Religion Magazine

Of Hearts and Oceans

By Richardl @richardlittleda

A review of Open Hearts by Kate Bull

Why would you read a book about surgery for congenital heart defects in children? The short answer to that question is ‘because Elliott and Thompson invited me to.’ Over the years the books they have passed my way have often challenged, occasionally amused and always enriched me. This book is no exception.

As an expert in the field of pediatric cardiology at a flagship hospital, Kate Bull is in the perfect position to talk down to her readers.  From the godlike position to which many patients and families exalt their doctors she could patronise, confuse or lecture. She does nothing of the sort. This meticulously researched and beautifully written book is suffused with an honesty which makes it hard to ignore and a warmth which makes it hard to put down, even when blinking back the tears. Consider this phrase, for example:

Fearing this book would be a triumphalist account of the history of the treatment, one mother challenged me to include some not-so-good-news stories.

She does just that, and touches on subjects as raw as the bullying experienced by children with ‘weak’ hearts, and as awkward as the transition teenagers experience from consultations with their parents in attendance to meeting their consultant alone as young adults. There is  a real admiration here for the patients whom the author describes. She talks about her awe at the way children ‘just deal with whatever turns up’. Despite her own enormous expertise, she also describes patient support groups as the ‘best medical invention’ of the era.

The book is not an easy read, either emotionally or intellectually. It will tug at the heart strings with accounts of real human suffering. Detailed descriptions of heart procedures will demand a careful reading, although helpful schematics provided at the back of the book make them a little easier. Overall, it is a book about the fruitfulness of surgical intervention in the lives of those whose hearts have let them down.

I should perhaps explain my title: of hearts and oceans. What I loved more than anything else about this book was the sense of wonder it retains. Neither the book’s historical and anecdotal research, nor the author’s own years of practice, have robbed her of a sense of wonder at what can be done. She still talks about ‘the audacity of open heart surgery’. I love that, and I am reminded of a line from a Lee Ann Womack song in 2000 ‘I hope you dance’:

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean

Kate Bull does – and I suspect she is both a better author and doctor because of it.


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