Two new books explore how surgeons must be resolute and mercilessby Joanna Bourke / June 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations by Thomas Morris (Bodley Head, £20)
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99)
Stephanie and Goobers were born seven months apart. Goobers was a healthy female but Stephanie suffered from hypoplastic left-heart syndrome—in other words, the left-hand side of her heart was underdeveloped. Two weeks after Stephanie’s birth, at the Loma Linda Medical Centre in California in October 1984, Goobers was killed on her behalf. Goobers’s walnut-sized heart was excised and sewn into Stephanie’s chest. The twist is that although Stephanie was a human baby, Goobers was a baboon.
For three weeks, Stephanie’s simian heartbeat kept her alive. The Times even reported that the five-pound baby was “sucking strongly, crying lustily and as cute as a button.” Then, as a result of the drugs and progressive graft necrosis, Stephanie’s kidneys and heart failed.
After the child’s death there was a public outcry: the surgeon in charge of the procedure was accused of “playing God.” In fact, Leonard L Bailey had been experimenting with cross-species organ transplants for the previous seven years—but his other surgeries had involved sheep and goats rather than human beings and so had aroused little debate. This new experiment was always going to be controversial. Goobers was a young baboon who had been raised in the hospital’s research colony and Stephanie was the daughter of a poor mother who, it was later claimed, did not give informed consent to the operation.
Critics of the attempted xenotransplantation (“xenos” means “stranger”) accused Bailey of having exploited Stephanie, who had been sacrificed “on the altar of scientific progress.” Animal rights campaigners accused Bailey of “ghoulish tinkering,” which lead to the killing of “a perfectly healthy baboon in order to prolong a child’s suffering.” But Bailey was unrepentant: he boasted that he was a surgeon governed by “medical altruism” as much as by scientific ambition.
I thought about the lives and deaths of Stephanie and Goobers while reading two new books about the craft and science of surgery. The first is Thomas Morris’s The Matter of the Heart. Morris is in awe of heart surgeons—as indeed we all should be. The heart is an extraordinary organ: at the end of an average person’s life, the fist-sized muscle has beaten three…