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Review of John Elefteriades' New Memoir

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Extraordinary Hearts: A Journey of Cardiac Medicine and the Human Spirit 
John A. Elefteriades, MD
2014 New York, Berkley Books
320 pp., ISBN: 9780425271520

Medically related fiction, memoirs, and biographies have the challenge of trying to appeal not just to the general public, which might find the anecdotes and descriptions of medical life exciting and enlightening, but also to the medical community, which may approach the prose with the skeptic’s heart and the critic’s soul. After all, what can a physician write that another physician has not already experienced in medical school, training, or in practice? One possible answer is in the sharing of the effect that the described procedures and patients have on the surgeon. As cardiothoracic surgeons, it is easy to accept the impact we have on a patients’ lives (and their families as well), but we are more reticent to admit the impact patients have on our own lives.

In Extraordinary Hearts: A Journey of Cardiac Medicine and the Human Spirit, John Elefteriades successfully navigates these difficulties, taking us on a voyage of self-discovery, while at the same time providing the layperson easy-to-understand explanations of common and not so common diseases and procedures that cardiac surgeons see and treat in the course of their careers. These explanations alone make this book a valuable addition to a person’s library. As I read through these pages, I experienced an unexpected range of emotions – not because I related to the operations Dr. Elefteriades describes but because of the feeling of fraternité, an appreciation that the same doubts, fears, neuroses, elations, and wonderment I may have experienced in the process of caring for a patient had been experienced by another cardiac surgeon. Elefteriades’ ability to inject humanity into his writings reminded me of another surgeon from Yale, Richard Selzer, whose vignettes and stories have provided generations of readers with a glimpse into the soul of a physician.

The book consists of ten chapters each describing one patient, some well-known, some not (but maybe should be). We read about Dave Brubeck’s CABG and Robert Ludlum’s aortic valve replacement. We hear about Carmella, a young woman with the Marfan Syndrome who experiences a Type A aortic dissection and inspires Elefteriades to partner with her husband, a statistical analyst, to create the aortic database at Yale. The book ends with a cardiac transplant on a famous long-distance runner. Elefteriades does not sweep complications under the rug; we are told about tamponade and iatrogenic injuries and, by noting these events, the experiences of the patient and the surgeon become real. We, in essence, get the full unadulterated view of a cardiac surgeon’s life and thoughts.

My own library begins with Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Shem’s House of God. Elefteriades’ Extraordinary Hearts has become the latest and welcomed dog-eared literary companion on that shelf.

For further discussion of this book, you can listen to the March 27, 2014 interview of Dr. Elefteriades by Dr. Abe DeAnda on the DoctorRadio show on SiriusXM Radio by visiting


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