Read of the Week

The First Breath

Olivia Gordon

Pan MacMillan

Review: Lauren O’Connor-May

There are people alive today who would never have been born a few decades ago – because the medicine needed to save them didn’t exist.

In this emotionally-charged book, Olivia Gordon tells us some of their stories.

Using her own son’s treatment as a springboard, Gordon launches the reader into these relatively new branches of foetal and neonatal medicine.

The First Breath introduces the reader to experimental doctors who bravely bucked conventions, and were sometimes treated as pariahs because of it, to pioneer these fields which were long considered untouchable sacred grounds. It explores the history of obstetric surgery and how ultrasound technology changed the field from being a literal “stab in the dark” to being able to observe the mysterious foetal world inside the womb.

Gordon gives an interesting perspective by writing firstly as a mother, whose 32-week-old premature baby received both foetal surgery
and then months and months of treatment as a very premature baby, and then from the view of the colourfully characterised doctors and nurses.

However, the behind-the-curtain stories play a secondary role. The main focus is the author’s emotional memoir of her journey through pregnancy complications, having a premature baby and then finding her son has a genetic disorder.

Gordon’s writing is lively and descriptive, and she simplifies complex medical terms and jargon into a readable and understandable story, but, nevertheless, this book took me a long time to digest.

I could only read it in small bites because it was emotionally draining to hear about so many babies dying or about the archaic medical treatments that often did more harm than
good, which is why one commentator called the high death rate of young babies in earlier
decades the “slaughterfield of infancy”. Perhaps this was not the best choice to read while pregnant.

However, the book did give me a new appreciation that my children were all born healthy, something that I had always taken for granted.

It also gave me a new respect for mothers who have had difficult pregnancies, have had children with special needs, very sick babies or all of the above.