A new book combines medical memoir with interviews with doctorsby Zoe Apostolides / June 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Olivia Gordon was 29 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with a rare condition that might have proved fatal. Her son was saved by surgery carried out in utero, an unthinkable feat until the first successful operation of its kind was performed in 1981.
Gordon’s first book combines medical memoir with interviews with neonatologists, obstetricians and surgeons. It also examines families in a similar situation. “I wanted to know,” she writes, “what it was like for other mothers and babies, the first generation for whom life before birth has been highly medicalised, and for these doctors who hold not only life and death but also the possibility of birth in their hands.”
By turns pacy and accessible, Gordon takes a long-lensed historical approach, from the early theories about genetic abnormalities that placed blame with mothers’ “troubled thoughts” to the 1570 Treatise about Monsters. The observation of birds at a Parisian zoo in the mid-19th century led to the invention of the incubator; in the 1890s, a German pathologist discovered that certain syndromes could be identified through blood testing. “What changed everything was the ability to see into the secretive world of the unborn human baby,” Gordon writes of X-ray’s advent, though despite this—and the use of fetoscopes—much of the work “required a lot of skill and luck.”
Lingering societal attitudes to difference of all stripes is brought to harsh light, “however masked by patronising political correctness.” In addition, “fetal medicine’s new powers to diagnose” brings its own set of ethical problems relating to termination, something “hardly ever discussed in public.”
It is the female experience of such invasive surgeries that remains the focus here; expectant mothers steeling themselves for “needles as long as rulers” and learning to navigate a “strange form of knowledge” about a child that has yet to enter the world.
The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives by Olivia Gordon (Bluebird, £16.99)