Joshua Mezrich says he stumbled into becoming a transplant surgeon the same way one talks about stumbling into a new cafe or bookstore. The son of a doctor, Mezrich was familiar with medicine, but when he began his career he didn’t anticipate being a transplant surgeon, much less traveling throughout the Midwest in a small plane harvesting fresh organs from the recently deceased.
“[After my first transplant], I sat there thinking, ‘I can’t believe we can do this, this is so great,'” Mezrich told Boston Public Radio. “What wasn’t lost on me was that someone had just died, and this organ had been working in that person, and was now really saving the life of this person. I was just taken by that, and thought, ‘Can I do this?”
Anecdotes like this form the basis of Mezrich’s new book, "When Death Becomes Life," where he pulls back the curtain on the opaque world of transplant surgery and provides readers with a brief history of the relatively new medical technique. In one chapter, Mezrich describes how as a medical student, one of his jobs was to drive through New York City to harvest — or procure, as he pointed out is the preferred term — skin from cadavers for patients who need skin grafts.
“It was sort of a bizarre, surreal experience, but for me I also started to learn about this gift that can come from deceased people,” Mezrich said.
While the book is replete with the odd ins and outs of life as a transplant surgeon, including, but not limited to, a scene where a surgeon nonchalantly wonders what he wants for dinner while wrist-deep in someone’s body, Mezrich also hopes to shed some light on the existential side of the job. Two chapters focus on liver transplants and how doctors determine the order in which patients receive livers, a process that was made uncomfortable for him since one of his colleagues was the recipient of three liver transplants.
“It’s hard though when you have someone in front of you, often who’s young, and you have this treatment that can save them and then you have to decide, ‘Am I going to do it for you,’” Mezrich said.
Mezrich’s book might not be for the squeamish, but does provide a rare, first-hand look into the science, history and philosophical debate of organ transplants. If there’s one thing Mezrich wants readers to walk away with, he said, it’s that at the end of the day, “we’re all the same on the inside.”