Do No Harm is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Henry Marsh benefits from the fact that his career – in neurosurgery – is immensely fascinating, but one of the book’s achievements is that this intricate topic remains accessible. Each chapter is headed with the various medical terms discussed in that chapter (and the chapters tend to be short). I feel like I learned something about the human brain in this book, as well as the life of a neurosurgeon.
Marsh is unflinchingly honest. Perhaps it’s because he’s close to retirement, or perhaps it’s just who he is, but he tells the reader how he feels about the current state of the health service, as well as his thoughts about surgeries which were unsuccessful. He writes about the difficulties of training new neurosurgeons; how do you know if somebody is ready to perform certain surgeries? He writes about a young surgeon he thought was ready to perform a particular operation, and it went horribly wrong. Marsh then discusses how helpful it can be for surgeons it is when things go wrong. He writes in a way I think some would find callous, but this distancing is surely necessary for a successful career in brain surgery.
I find the brain fascinating to read about. There is so much that people have discovered in recent years – when Marsh started his career there weren’t many other neurosurgeons. There is still so much about the brain that is unknown, and Marsh reflects on the fact that all his thoughts and feelings are just his brain firing away. Our own consciousness is still so very mysterious.
Marsh weaves his career history with particular cases, his personal and professional life often overlap because neurosurgery tends to require everything from a person. He writes sensitively about his first marriage breaking down; it is easy to see with hindsight that he dedicated more time to his career than his marriage, but he writes about this sensitively. The reader also sees his perspective of being a family member worried about a sick child. I found this fascinating: when his son was very small he required brain surgery and Marsh talks about the worry and heartache that the people on the other side must face. And it is this worry and heartache that a person performing an operation cannot think about.
This probably isn’t the best book to read if you’re about to undergo surgery. Or, perhaps it is if you want to think of the neurosurgeon as a fallible human. But I don’t think that many people like to think that. Perhaps I enjoyed this book more because (thankfully) I don’t know anyone who has to undergo surgery at the moment. Do No Harm is written honestly, perhaps too honestly for some. I’d definitely read more of Marsh’s work if he publishes more books. Recommended for people who enjoy authors such as Oliver Sacks.