Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Book review: Anaesthesia, Kate Cole-Adams (2017)

This fascinating and disturbing book was a relief to read because it deals with a complicated subject but it does so in an accessible way. At one point Cole-Adams mentions the writing of Antonio Damasio, who is an expert on consciousness, and praises his writing, but I tried to read one of his books not long ago and found it to be completely incomprehensible. Cole-Adams describes work of his she has read as “beautiful” (I think, that is my recollection but I can’t remember where the reference appeared so I can’t easily check to see which word was used). But in my experience what you get with the work of many specialists who publish books about their area of expertise is a work that goes too fast for the layperson. What you get with Cola-Adams, who is a trained journalist, is a well-paced story that hits its targets and that takes you along with the narrator at a moderate pace.

There are two main characters in this account. One of them is a woman named Rachel Benmayor who woke up during a Caesarian section that was being conducted to save the life of her daughter, and who experienced great pain and distress. Part of the reason for the distress came from not being able to communicate her consciousness to the people who were operating on her. She never forgot the experience. The other person who features in this story is the writer herself. There are threads in it that deal with her mother, her partners, her children and her mother’s father who had been a doctor. At the end of the work Cole-Adams is admitted to a hospital in Brisbane to have surgery designed to correct the scoliosis (curvature of the spine) that had affected her from childhood.

Around these two poles Cole-Adams creates an intricate world animated by researchers and surgeons and anaesthetists and the science that they are involved with, which dates from the middle of the 19th century. But what we think we know about anaesthesia is only part of what our understanding actually reveals. What Cole-Adams shows us is that while we may remember nothing after an operation it is more than likely that we will be at least partly conscious during the time that it is ongoing. She does this by talking with specialists in Europe and in the US and in other countries, specialists who know things about anaesthesia that most of us are optimistically blind to.

One thing that the author mentions in relation to anaesthesia is situational memory, where you only remember certain things when you are physically in the same environment that had existed when the memory was formed. I can attest to the truth of this from personal experience, and I even wrote about it (on 5 January this year in a post titled ‘Experiencing dream remnants’).

This kind of book is difficult to write but Cole-Adams had many years over which she was able to think about how to go about writing it. From time to time she will mention something and use someone’s name as a link to things that had been discussed in the book previously and you will hesitate, wondering who she is talking about and why their name is meant to be important. But this sort of failure is infrequent; it happened on one notable occasion to me while reading the book. For most of the time the pacing is adequate to the complexity of the subject matter. This is a competent book that uses literary journalistic techniques to engage the reader with the sometimes difficult material it retails in. I recommend this book to anyone.

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