Book Reviews

Walk on Water

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Some books pull you in from the opening pages, grabbing your attention before you even know you’re hooked. Others build your interest over time, weaving fact and narrative into an engrossing tapestry that subtly wraps you in their grasp.

A few books do both.

Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children’s Lives, by Michael Ruhlman, is one of those books.

A riveting history of pediatric cardiovascular (CV) surgery told mostly through the groundbreaking work of New Zealander Roger Mee at the Cleveland Clinic in the 1990s, Walk on Water manages to be compelling and detailed without becoming maudlin or too “inside baseball.”

For the lay reader, the book is a 332-page snapshot of an intimidating, sometimes inscrutable world that’s as overwhelming as it is awesome, as terrifying as it is promising.

But for the parents of “heart babies”—whose memories of invasive procedures, relentlessly beeping monitors, sleepless nights in the ICU, and knee-weakening odds are wide, deep, and ever present—it’s testimony.

That’s how the book felt to me, at least.

After the birth of our fourth child, Elie, in November 2007, my husband and I received a crash course in pediatric CV surgery and all the innovations and unknowns that go with it.

Fortunate to live near Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and its rock-star cardiac surgeon, the Aussie Richard Jonas (who gets several mentions in the book), we were lucky that Elie benefited from the most up-to-date—and highly successful—treatments available to kids born with complex heart defects.

It wasn’t until reading Walk on Water, though, that I realized just how much luck had to do with it and that, if our youngest daughter’s truncus arteriosus and pulmonary hypertension—treated today with bosentan, sildenafil, and digoxin, along with a series of aggressive angioplasties—had been present, instead, in our oldest daughter (born in 1991), the outcome could’ve been very different.

That’s because, as the book chronicles, the field of pediatric CV surgery was, up until relatively recently, quite short on triumphs. Long-term successes were rare.

But thanks to pioneers like Mee, Jonas, Ed Bove, and Frank Hanley, not to mention the countless unnamed nurses, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, and others working behind the scenes to heal children’s broken hearts, such successes are no longer the exception. They’re the rule.

Although I highly recommend Walk on Water to “heart parents” who’ve already been in the trenches, so to speak, I especially encourage those parents’ families and friends to read this incredible book. As gut-wrenching and downright sad as it can be, it’s equally as hopeful and life-affirming.

In other words, just like the world of pediatric CV surgery itself.

 

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