The Cutting Edge

Victoria Sweet in The New York Times:

PillIt is easy to forget how amazing modern medicine is. When my mother’s grandmother was born, there were no antibiotics, no antisepsis and, except for smallpox, no vaccinations. There were no X-rays, no IVs or EKGs. There was no anesthesia. When the English novelist Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy in 1811, she was awake. “I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead,” she wrote to her sister. “When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast — cutting through veins — arteries — flesh — nerves — I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. . . . Oh Heaven! — I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone — scraping it!” Simple appendicitis was often fatal, and the average age of death in England in 1840 was 41, not because people aged more quickly but because so many died of disease and accidents first. Then, in the mid-19th century, discoveries and inventions began pouring into medicine. Today we have the medical care previous societies only dreamed of — painless surgery, treatments for infections, marvelous mechanical aids for the disabled.

In “Extreme Medicine,” Kevin Fong, an honorary lecturer in physiology at University College London who has worked with NASA and trained in anesthesiology and intensive care medicine, surveys how far medicine has come in the treatment of hypothermia, severe burns, heart disease, lung disease, complex trauma care, viral epidemics. This “is a book about life: its fragility, its fractal beauty and its resilience,” he writes. “It is about a century during which our expectations of life transformed beyond all recognition, when we took what was routinely fatal and made it survivable . . . this exploration of the human body was no less extreme than our forays in the physical world.” In fact, his premise is that the cause of this transformation in medicine was exploration.

More here.