An Organ Donation Reading List: Background information when reading When Death Becomes Life

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When Death Becomes Life

Notes from a Transplant Surgeon

by Joshua D. Mezrich

When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich X
When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2019, 384 pages
    Jan 2020, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

An Organ Donation Reading List

This article relates to When Death Becomes Life

Print Review

Artistic rendering of a heart transplant featuring two hands holding one heartReaders curious to learn more about organ transplantation after finishing surgeon Joshua D. Mezrich's memoir on the subject have a wealth of options to choose from; here are five recommendations, two fiction and three nonfiction:


The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson
Fifty-year-old Patrick is a philandering professor with a failing heart. He's saved by a teenage boy's fatal motorbike accident near Cambridge, England. By accident he learns the identity of his heart donor and is haunted by the thought of Drew Beamish, who died on his 16th birthday. He even seems to intuit things about the boy's ancestry through his dreams. The novel explores the idea that a donor heart might carry its original owner's memories and personality, and somehow transmit them to the recipient; there are certainly some eerie connections here.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal
19-year-old Simon Limbres is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. The novel spends time with Simon's family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse and others. Originally published in French in 2014, this went on to make the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2016 and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize for literature that engages with medicine and health.


Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers: Kidney, Dialysis, Transplant—and a Love Story by Vanesa Grubbs
Grubbs is a nephrologist and assistant professor of medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Well before she made the kidneys her clinical area of expertise, a personal encounter made them special to her. In 2003 she met Robert Phillips when she was an attending physician trying to get support for her Office of Diversity Affairs; he was a hospital trustee. She learned after they started dating that his kidneys had failed in his 20s and he'd been on dialysis for years. In 2005 she donated one of her kidneys to him, and he proposed to her soon afterwards.

The Reluctant Donor by Suzanne Ruff
In Ruff's memoir, she explains how polycystic kidney disease has affected her large, Irish Catholic Chicago family. Describing a family photograph from the 1950s, she notes that six of the eight family members pictured died of PKD, starting with her aunt, a nun called "Sister Mike." There has always been a long waiting list for transplant kidneys, but Ruff explains that dialysis machines used to be rare too; demand far exceeded supply, and the procedure was not covered by Medicare until 1973, so people like Sister Mike who could have benefited from dialysis died while waiting for it. Things had improved by the time Ruff's mother Joan needed dialysis and a transplant, and in October 2004, Ruff, the only one of her sisters without PKD, donated a kidney to her younger sister JoAnn.

Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar
Jauhar directs the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Medical Center. His family history – both grandfathers died of sudden cardiac events in India, one after being bitten by a snake – prompted an obsession with the heart. In this illuminating dive into the intricacies of cardiovascular disease and treatment, Jauhar explores major medical advances of the last six decades, including the heart–lung machine, cardiac catheterization, heart transplantation and artificial hearts. Interspersed with this timeline of events are scenes from Jauhar's own academic and professional experience, experimenting on frogs in high school, dissecting his first cadaver at medical school, and cataloging body parts in a makeshift morgue as a 9/11 first responder.

Artistic interpretaion of heart transplant, courtesy of Cosmic Series

Filed under Reading Lists

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to When Death Becomes Life. It originally ran in February 2019 and has been updated for the January 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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