I've always been fascinated by people who are intensely engaged in their work--teachers, chefs, boat builders, primarily craftsmen, people who work with their hands. When a friend told me about a surgeon at a hospital not far from my house who operated on babies' hearts every day and was world-renowned for the skill with which he did the work, I was attentive but uninspired. There are a lot of world-class surgeons in all kinds of specialties (many at the hospital in question, the Cleveland Clinic), plastic surgeons, brain surgeons. So this guy, a man named Roger Mee, happened to be really good at fixing babies hearts. So what?
My friend then said the three words that engaged the gears: he said, "What a job."
This single claim provoked a million questions, but ultimately it led me to seek the ultimate reason for the importance of great cooking. What is great cooking? Why is it so important? Why has cooking become so important in American culture that in the span of a decade, chefs had been turned in the public's eye from blue-collar wretches to glittering celebrities accorded almost shamanistic knowledge?
Phrased that way, in terms of routine work, the idea of watching a man who was best in the world at refashioning babies hearts, some no bigger than a walnut, a man who did this work daily, this I was interested in. I'd seen how the pressures of the professional kitchen physically and spiritually changed the lives of professional chefs. How did the work of heart surgery on babies, how did the craft itself, the required skills and the effects of the stress, work on a man? Who do you become when you operate on babies hearts every day for 25 years? This I wanted to pursue.
And so I began by showing up in a pediatric ICU in October 2000 for 8 a.m. rounds and didn't leave for more than a year. I became a part of this intimate group, thanks to their generosity and openness, surgeons, cardiologists, intensivists, residents, interns, nurses, O.R. assistants, perfusionists, anesthesiologists, technicians, and I got to know the families who found themselves tragically, often unexpectedly, in their midst. The story follows Dr. Mee and the others involved in this tiny but remarkable medical specialty through actual cases, O.R. dramas, the personalities involved which typically are what one might describe euphemistically as "intense." The story also describes the history of heart surgery, ethical dilemmas cardiologists must face in what is a politically fraught world of referrals, and an exploration of the craft of surgery generally.
A glimpse into the life and lives of a children's heart center reveals a brutal world with flashes of beauty and elegance, a place where it's all but impossible to avoid reflecting on what our life means, what we value and why.