Critical by Dr Matt Morgan reviewed

Critical Book Cover Critical
Dr Matt Morgan
Simon and Schuster UK Fiction
May 30, 2019

Following in the wake of hugely successful medical memoirs such as Do No Harm and Fragile Lives, Critical is an intelligent, compelling and profoundly insightful journey into the world of intensive care medicine and the lives of people who have forever been changed by it.

Being critically ill means one or more of your vital organs have failed – this could be your lungs, your heart, your kidneys, gut or even your brain. Starting with the first recognised case in which a little girl was saved by intensive care in 1952 in Copenhagen, Matt writes brilliantly about the fascinating history, practices and technology in this newest of all the major medical specialties. Matt guides us around the ICU by guiding us around the body and the different organs, and in this way, we learn not only the stories of many of the patients he’s treated over the years, but also about the various functions different parts of the body.

He draws on his time spent with real patients, on the brink of death, and explains how he and his colleagues fight against the odds to help them live. Happily many of his cases have happy endings, but Matt also writes movingly about those cases which will always remain with him – the cases where the mysteries of the body proved too hard to solve, or diagnoses came too late or made no difference to the outcome

Dr Matt Morgan, an Intensivist, was at a medical conference in Dublin in 2016.  At a pub afterwards a member of the public asked why he was there and then what his speciality was – it made him realise while he knew what he did others did not understand the subject.  Critical was the result of the conversation.  I have to say that I for one am glad that he did have that conversation.  The result of it is well worthwhile!

The book looks at the various reasons why someone may be in an ICU bed.  This gives us the following headings for sections of the book.

  • The Immune System
  • Skin and Bones
  • The Heart
  • The Lungs
  • The Brain
  • The Guts
  • The Blood
  • The Soul

I guess strictly the last one is not going to be the reason why you occupy an Intensive Care bed however it does give you an idea of the range of this book.  In practice Matt uses each of the headings to look at a couple of cases and then delves further.  This approach allows him to look at the history of Intensive Care which was fascinating for example.  However he ranges very widely indeed within these topics.

I certainly did not know that intensive care started with a polio victim and an anaesthetist in 1952.  I learned a lot from this book which interested me.  Equally I now know about some things I would far rather not experience for myself!  There is the history of intensive care, the equipment used, what we can and can’t do and some thoughts on where things should be going.

The author looks at his training and development over the years as a doctor and then an ICU specialist.  He considers the skills required for the role.  For me there was something far more holistic about his approach that I had expected for what seems to be a “technical” area of medicine.  He stresses the need to think objectively rather than assuming likely causes – time is limited usually.  In a number of parts of this book the tension between history – the way we usually do things – and science – is there a better way – are often looked at.  I found that aspect very interesting.

The reading seemed quite easy here to me and maybe at the “person in the street” level.  I think Critical could have been pitched a little higher.  I have doubts about the likelihood of the person in the street being the main audience for this.  I’d suggest it would be appreciated by anyone with an interest and some knowledge in healthcare.  I guess I did find parts where the tone was slightly off for me.

I really enjoyed Critical and would thank the author for the clarity he has brought to this subject.  To make it interesting too takes some work.  It is a book capable of making you smile and definitely capable of letting you shed a tear or two – I certainly did.  This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read recently and recommended.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review