The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery and Mystery

Nursing Book Club

The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery and Mystery

By Rob Dunn (Little, Brown and Co., 2015)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN

Broken hearts are all too common, whether they’re just a metaphor for sadness or a literal description of a deadly illness. According to science writer Rob Dunn, everyone knows someone with a heart ailment, which inspired him to explore just what happens to hearts and the history of our attempts to fix them.

Dunn’s 2015 book, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, begins with the story of one of the first heart surgeries on record, which was performed by Daniel Hale Williams III, M.D., the first black student at the Chicago Medical College (now Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine). Today, hearts are routinely stopped and started, moved and transplanted, but it was Williams who took that first step.

In 1893, he treated James Cornish, who had been stabbed in a bar fight. Without any of the diagnostic tools we have today, Williams opened the man’s chest, pulled the ribs apart so he could peer into the operative field and sewed together the torn pericardium with catgut. Williams correctly theorized that the knife wound to the heart muscle would seal itself over.

Dunn steps back from there to chronicle the history of human understanding of the heart and its function, beginning with the Turkish physician Galen, born in 129 A.D. Although advances were made in our understanding, the heart continued to be invisible from the outside, so progress was slow. By 1907, nearly 15 years after Williams’ pioneering operation, only 120 heart surgeries had been performed.

A Daring Experiment

The incident described in the book’s title took place in 1929. Werner Forssmann, then a surgical resident at a hospital in Eberswalde, Germany, decided that cardiac catherization, which he had seen a veterinarian perform on a horse, would facilitate treatment of a still-beating human heart.

Unable to secure permission from hospital authorities to experiment on human patients, Forssmann recklessly performed the procedure on himself. Only after he had begun did he belatedly realize that he would need some kind of documentation to prove his success. With the help of a nurse, he made his way to the X-ray machine, two flights of stairs away, and obtained film of his achievement.

From then on, advances began to pile up, including the development of heart-lung machines, the use of EKGs to translate heartbeats into electrical signals and later the development of artificial valves.

Dunn devotes the book’s later chapters to subsequent achievements in mending hearts, including the use of statins, heart bypass surgery and the successful repair of common but complicated heart conditions such as Tetralogy of Fallot. He concludes with a discussion of possible directions for future study, such as metabolic stem cells.

Full of science, easily understood if a little dry, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart satisfied my general craving to know how things work, why they go wrong and how they can be fixed.

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