I was ten years old when I learned my first bit of medical history: the first heart transplant, which was performed in South Africa by Dr Christiaan Barnard. We were not told that his little brother played a role in this world-changing surgery as well.
A year later, Dr C. Barnard died unexpectedly. I was just eleven, and could not possibly understand everything that came to light in the media frenzy, but I did learn that he had been a ladies’ man and a difficult character. Again, I never heard anything about his little brother.
In light of this it is probably not surprising that Marius Barnard felt the need to chronicle his own life – and perhaps not surprising that a thread of bitterness was woven into the narrative.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this Dr Barnard’s life. He grew up, like his brother, in a small town called Beaufort West. His upbringing was humble, and his father was a missionary. I enjoyed reading about his medical school years – and I liked that he never mentioned particular academic prowess. (There must be hope for me.)
Dr Barnard went to Romania at a time when the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, but he went regardless, in order to train surgeons there in his techniques. I think he saved a great many lives in this manner and this (long) chapter was probably my favourite part of the book.
He went on to become a Member of Parliament and pioneered the concept of Critical Illness Insurance, first in South Africa and then in much of the world. He admits that he does not think he made a big difference as an MP, but that really is open to the interpretation of the reader. I definitely appreciate his non-racial beliefs and the kindness he displays.
There was a fair amount I did not like of this book. As mentioned before, there seemed to be some bitterness seeping through (although one can’t exactly blame him for it). I felt that there was a fair amount of naming-and-shaming going on here. The phrase “I did not really like so-and-so” was common. People’s faults were laid bare. Sometimes it was incredibly funny, but sometimes it was just in bad taste.
Divided into five sections – namely Heritage, Medicine, Politics, Critical Illness Insurance and Matters of the Heart – the narrative at times seemed disjointed. I am sure that this is a matter of personal preference and that Barnard and his team discussed the benefits of this ad nauseum, but I feel that the WHOLE Dr Barnard would have been easier understood if the book was more chronological. The other problem is that I have virtually no interest in insurance matters, so about 80 pages were very boring to me.
Despite this, I enjoyed getting to know this country-boy who rocketed to fame. His autobiography may be unapologetic to a fault, but the writing is also incredibly genuine. Not beautiful, but raw and genuine.
Another benefit was that my general perception of surgeons was challenged. Readers of this blog will know that I have been critical of surgeons (not because of their skills, but because of their attitudes). I am learning to have fewer preconceived notions of individuals in different medical disciplines.
Not for everyone, but certainly a good read for those interested in history, medicine or politics, this book probably gets less credit than is due.