Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeons Odyssey

Nursing Book Club

Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeons Odyssey

Behind the knife

By Bud Shaw, M.D. (Plume Books, 2015)
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I love a well-written memoir — it gives me a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes and safely experience their life for a little while. In his new book, Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey, author Bud Shaw, M.D., a pioneering liver transplant surgeon, takes a look back on his life’s work and shares what it’s like to live life on the cutting edge.

Reading this book was a particular treat because it inspired me to glance in the rearview window at my own nursing career.
The stories Shaw shares are fascinating and exciting. He recalls being jammed into helicopters with the liver rescue team; standing bathed in blood during surgeries; rescuing people from the brink of death; and dealing with the reaction of the families when his best efforts fell short.

Shaw also shares quite a bit about his own family and what brought him to his own career. Not all of it happy and it helps us see that for all his surgical wizardry, the author is really a flawed character, just like the rest of us. He is not, however, a flawed writer and I found the nonlinear sequence constantly intriguing.

It helps that Shaw and I are the same age. (I can easily picture him wearing the Danskin clogs that surgeons wore back then.) I knew surgeons like him. They were smart, brash, competitive and out to change the world.


As nurses, we were as afraid of surgeons like Shaw as we were in awe of their prowess. They burned through hospitals, ignoring or rewriting protocols as they saw fit, often destroying professional relationships and yet making discoveries, redefining their field and saving lives.

As Shaw himself explains, “The operating room is [surgeons’] fiefdom, the only place in our lives where we can demand supreme command.” And demand they did. At the outset of my nursing career, I often shook in my boots working in operating rooms with men and women this demanding.

As a circulating nurse, I once hesitated to tell a doctor that he couldn't close because we couldn’t yet account for all the lap pads. He bellowed back that we had better just find it — and fast! I always grimaced when a surgeon tossed a hemostat on the floor because it was the wrong one. (As a scrub nurse, there were hundreds of tools that looked alike.)

Surgeons weren’t necessarily any gentler about their own mistakes. Once, when an elderly surgeon leaned over and his glasses fell into the field, I looked around for someone to help me because I was nervous about warning him that he had just contaminated the area.

Last Night in the OR was a book I thoroughly enjoyed because it shows that these surgeons had another side they didn’t often share. I might not like that side any better, but at least now I can understand it. 

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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