Mimi Swartz tells the story of a group of cardiac surgeons all vying for the title of creator. Not with a capital C, but creator of the first functional artificial heart. And by group, I don’t mean to imply they worked together. Some did, and some didn’t. Competition was fierce, and the game was decades long.

Beginning in the 1970s, when medicine was just beginning to understand heart disease. The doctors had a lot to learn too, so it was a bit like the Wild West. Which made sense, since these doctors happened to practice in the Houston area.

Once Dr. Michael DeBakey at Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital and Dr. Denton Cooley began working in town, the city became known for its ability to treat the most difficult kinds of cardiac cases. The two were fierce rivals throughout their lives.

Then those two doctors began mentoring the next generation, including Vietnam vet Dr. Bud Frazier at Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s / Texas Medical Center. Frazier in turn mentors Dr. Billy Cohn, a surgeon / inventor who he hopes can drive the next phase of device development. It’s interesting to see how each successive generation builds on the last, while also changing the playing field.

Swartz highlights each surgeon and their team of mechanics and technicians. She tells how they got their start in cardiac surgery, and then details their efforts with implantable cardiac devices. Sounds like it might get dry, but she keeps the momentum going with plenty of funny, insightful stories. These surgeons are characters!

My conclusions

This isn’t an especially long book, and it went very quickly for me. It helps that I’m fascinated by all things medical. Swartz explains cardiac conditions the devices invented to relieve them with as much ease as she describes Houston high society. Perhaps it helps that they’re people she’s been reporting on for decades, as editor of Texas Monthly.

It’s amazing how much medicine can do for patients. And it’s also sad to learn about all the failed cases too. Swartz introduces the patients on whom the surgeons to tested their devices. Despite knowing they were likely to die either way, these brave souls took the chance and ultimately advanced medical research. They are unsung heroes, and I’m glad Swartz brings their cases to light.

I heard the names of the surgeons and patients while I was growing up. Dr. Christian Barnaard, inventor Robert Jarvik, and patient Barney Clark. It’s good to understand the deeper story behind those famous headlines.

Ticker is full of heart-felt goals, painful failures, and the occasional triumph. It’s a seamless mix of biography, medical technology, and history. If this is your jam, you won’t be disappointed.


I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for this honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley, Crown Publishing, and the author.