“Every chapter combines personal stories, dramatic medical history and clear, vivid science writing…Fong’s book presents daring moments in medicine along with lucid explanations of human physiology and of how medical professionals manage to keep people alive or pull them back from the brink. It should appeal to would-be astronauts, outdoor-lovers, mountain climbers, free-divers, armchair explorers, science enthusiasts, those working in the health professions or wondering about such a career—indeed, just about anyone with a heartbeat and a dash of curiosity.” —The Washington Post
“In Extreme Medicine, physician Kevin Fong reminds us that virtually everything we take for granted in lifesaving medical intervention was once unthinkable… Dr. Fong’s engaging and fast-paced narrative is liberally sprinkled with his own harrowing experiences as a specialist in anesthesia and intensive-care.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[Fong] weaves first hand, nail-biting ER experiences with gripping historical narrative as he recounts 100 years of breakthroughs…[Fong] looks forward as well: He offers tantalizing ideas about surviving long-term space travel and other possibilities that await us in our relentless quest to explore.” —Discover
“With clear, evocative prose, he takes readers to ocean depths and mountaintops, and also deep within our bodies, in this entertaining exploration of human limits.” —Mother Jones
“Anatomy and physiology are elegantly explained, not as abstract theory, but as counterpoint to gripping stories about survival against the odds. Real stories of life and near-death form the compelling backbone of the book. The book could easily have ended up as a series of Boy’s Own tales of derring-do, but Fong elegantly balances heroism with rationalism, courage with compassion, shock with humility and humor.” —The Observer (UK)
“A gripping read. It’s the kind of book you want to read peeking through cracks in your fingers; you want to look away, but not as much as you want to know what happens… I held my breath, I shed a tear, I laughed out loud, and I struggled to keep my lunch down at various points through this book, and that can only be a good thing.” —Guardian (UK)
“Fong has dramatic first-person accounts to give, and many more… he also proves himself to be a genuinely talented author… Fong has come up with an often fascinating and actually rather inspiring account of western medicine’s ever-increasing expertise.” —Daily Mail
“In Extreme Medicine, the ever-intrepid Kevin Fong reveals the fascinating link between geographical exploration and medical innovation, with stories that are as strange and intriguing as they are illuminating.” —Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of Complications, Better, and The Checklist Manifesto
“It would be hard to find anyone better qualified to write a book on the limits of human physiology than Dr. Kevin Fong. His experiences in human spaceflight at NASA, in frontline medicine, and his deep scientific knowledge, shine through. If you want to know what the human body can take, and why we must continue to push ourselves beyond the limit in the name of exploration, then read this book.” — Professor Brian Cox, author of The Quantum Universe
“A medical thriller of the first order.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“[An] eloquent history of how 20th-century science and medicine moved us toward ‘improved survival’—and with it a better understanding of life and death… these are thrilling stories that describe the limits of human physiology.” —Publishers Weekly
From the breastbone, the route to the heart is two and a half centimeters in a straight line, but that trivial distance took medicine the best part of twenty-five hundred years to travel. The twentieth century would see centuries of dogma set aside and cardiac surgery advance in great leaps and bounds. These feats of exploration lay open the continent of the heart to science and medicine in the same way as Robert Scott paved the way to the Antarctic interior. Our exploration of the world’s extremes is, in essence, an exploration of ourselves and the limits of the human body. It is our physiology, and our inability to protect it effectively from the physicality of the outside world, that put the remote corners of the Earth beyond our grasp until well into the twentieth century.
That exploration also saw us turn to the frontiers of medicine to explore the limits of physiology in health and disease. The same revolutions in science and technology that extended our explorations of the physical world helped to push back the frontiers of medicine and surgery.
There were at the start of the twentieth century many facets of human anatomy and physiology that stood largely unprobed—foremost among them the human heart. While nineteenth-century scientists had begun to map the organ’s function and complexity, it remained a territory upon which medicine feared to trespass. As late as the fifth decade of the twentieth century, as the Second World War raged, the heart was still a continent as dangerous and unknown in the eyes of surgeons as Antarctica was to explorers of the heroic age.
Physicians saw the heart as largely inviolate: a sacred and complex whole that must remain intact and unaltered; an organ with which surgeons could and should not interfere. This dogma was as old as Aristotle’s teachings and remained unchallenged until the very end of the nineteenth century. Medical textbooks warned against tampering with the heart. In his 1896 text Surgery of the Chest, esteemed surgeon Stephen Paget made his position clear: “Surgery of the heart,” he famously declared, “has probably reached the limits set by nature, no new methods and no new discovery can overcome the natural difficulties that attend a wound of the heart.”
Overcoming the received wisdom of the past, making that leap of surgical faith, was a feat that required the terrible but unique catalyst of war.