This is a personal memoir by an anaesthetist about what his job entails, set against the context of the history of anaesthesia, from Greek mythology through to when it started to become more routine in the 19th century.
While the narrative is authoritative, humane and dignified, the author is frank about past failures and difficulties, and less forthcoming about his successes. It soon becomes clear that any operation can bring risk, with potential challenges that might strike at any time to endanger the patient and alarm the anaesthetist. The author often compares his tasks to being an airline pilot – a pilot who sometimes has to fly and land in fog.
The author’s carefully onsidered and controlled prose is highly expressive, sometimes verging on the poetic, using analogies and similes to help the reader understand just what it’s like to be in his role in the operating theatre – a role that is often underrated because it is a relatively silent one, and low profile. In medical dramas, the camera will focus on the surgeon, not the anaesthetist, who is generally treated as an also-ran, although without him the operation could not take place.
This book therefore does a good PR job for anaesthetists everywhere by raising the profile of the importance and challenge of the job they do. The reader is likely to end the book thankful for the anaesthetist’s expertise, as much as for the surgeon’s, and grateful to live in the age of modern medicine.
This is a short book, and I could happily have kept reading for another 100 pages or more. In fact, I felt a little disappointed that the author had not written more, as he must have plenty more anecdotes to share. But it wasn’t just the subject matter, but the high quality of the prose and enjoyment in the author’s company that left me craving more.
The book was well presented and well formatted, and the simple, understated but smart and eyecatching cover fits it well.
“Breathing for Two” would be enjoyed by anyone interested in medical and surgical matters, both present and historic, whether or not they have had or are expecting to have surgery. A word of caution though: anyone about to undergo surgery should avoid this book until after they’ve come round from their anaesthetic!