How to borrow life

A World War II pilot burned beyond recognition, two surgeons honing their skills while tending to wounded warriors, a young English scientist who resolves to cheat death after witnessing a gruesome plane crash…and the women who loved them.

A tender love story? A gripping war epic? A tale of risk, redemption and renewal?

Well, yes, yes and yes.

But above all, “Borrowing Life,” the latest offering from Gainesville’s most prolific author, Shelley Fraser Mickle, is an eminently readable and impeccably researched history of the quest to achieve the “holy grail” of surgical procedures – the successful transplant of an organ from one human being into another.

To tell that story she assembles a cast of fascinating characters:

Charles Wood, the pilot whose body was so disfigured by burns that he would endure years of suffering and dozens of surgeries to rebuild his face and hands. It was Wood’s uncanny, and inexplicable, ability to tolerate skin grafts not his own for long periods of time that would launch the quest.

Physicians Francis Moore and Joseph Murray whose experience treating Wood and other badly burned victims made them resolve, sometimes at the risk of their own careers, to overcome the medical and biological barriers, first to skin grafts and, finally, kidney replacements.

And Peter Medawar, England’s “boy professor” whose experiments on cows, chickens, mice and dogs led to the understanding that “the immune system had a memory,” and that figuring out how to “trick cellular memory” would be key to success.

But if Mickle has the eye of a trained observer she also possesses the heart of a romantic, which is why she weaves in lively accounts of the wives who helped keep these men grounded and, yes, sane. “Will you love me like Mariam loved Charles,” she poses.

At the outset of “Borrowing Life” the conventional wisdom asserted that transplantation could never happen because of the human body’s refusal to accept what is essentially a foreign object.

And indeed, from the end of World War II and on into the 1960s it would require years of experimentation, false starts and failures before scientists and surgeons finally figured out how to “bamboozle the body’s system of defense,” Mickle writes, thereby founding “a new field of science” that has made possible the routine transplantation of skin, kidneys, hearts, lungs and more.

The path to success wasn’t just blocked by biological barriers but also thorny legal and ethical conundrums: “What would it mean to injure a healthy body by borrowing an organ to give to another?” In a profession that vows to “do no harm,” is it ethical, even with the donor’s consent, to take a functioning organ out of one twin brother so as to implant it into the other?

And while the war wreaked untold devastation it also provided clues that helped unravel some of the mysteries of medicine. In Nazi-occupied Holland a young physician fashioned the first prototype dialysis machine – of necessity out of sausage casings and tomato cans. And the discovery that atomic bomb victims had weakened immunity systems led to experiments with radiation as a possible means of lowering the body’s natural resistance to transplants.

Ultimately, however, the answer was not to be found in splitting the atom, but rather in an immunosuppressive drug first developed to treat cancer patients. When a beagle mix named New Hampshire was able to tolerate a new kidney with the help of the right drug, Mickle writes, the “friendly yellow and white mutt inspired the transplant field worldwide.”

“Borrowing Life” arrives by way of wrapping up long unfinished business for Mickle and her husband, Parker, a retired University of Florida pediatric neurosurgeon.

In 1968, fresh out of Vanderbilt Medical School, Parker was recruited by Francis Moore to be a general surgery intern at Boston’s Brigham Hospital. He also helped care for some of Joseph Murray’s transplant patients. And recognizing that the newly arrived young couple would have trouble making ends meet, Dr. Murray once offered Shelly a secretary’s job…which Mickle declined because she was already pursuing a writer’s career.

In writing “Borrowing Life” all these years later, Mickle reflects, “I have finally become the secretary they all needed to step into our world.”

Borrowing Life” is an Imagine Book published by Charlesbridge and sells for $24.99. I wrote this review for the Gainesville Sun. It was published on May 31.

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