Books

story behind the book | kate tuttle

Working the wonder of transplant surgery

david wilson for the boston globe

Joshua Mezrich tells two stories in his book, “When Death Becomes Life.” One is about his own journey toward becoming a transplant surgeon, including his early fumbles when training, and dozens of stories from the patients he’s treated along the way.

The other is a sweeping history of the development of organ transplantation and the daring doctors who pioneered it — many of them going years before they were able to see any successful results of their innovations. “Part of what I set out to do with this book was to understand how they were able to do it,” said Mezrich, whose older brother is writer Ben Mezrich. “It’s amazing what these guys were able to do. In a 20- to 30-year period they went from this being total science fiction to it being a reality.”

Now, kidney transplantation is routine enough that “in many ways we’re a victim of our own success,” Mezrich said. But he sees more innovation in the future. “I honestly think we’re right at the beginning of some exciting things,” he added, including transplantation between species and new ways of preventing organ rejection in recipients.

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Mezrich remembers the first kidney transplant he ever saw, as a medical student. “It was so beautiful, it kind of blew my mind,” he said. “A kidney transplant is one of the best things we do. You take this person who has a miserable existence, and almost with the snap of a finger you make their life so great.”

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Transplant surgery is more than just technically appealing; the relationship between donors and recipients is what makes it so special. Mezrich sees donors as heroes. “It’s a huge deal,” he said. For living donors, “it’s like running into a burning building to save someone. It’s very safe in terms of the numbers, but it’s still heroic to me when someone opts to do that. I’m all for celebrating that.”

Mezrich will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.