Dr. Pensack writes in the first chapter of his memoir: "Through a lifetime I have been in the process of dying, consistently surprised when reminded that life is appallingly brief, and briefer still for me. The prospect of an early death has amounted to little more than embarrassment and loneliness, even though the routine of living can be, and usually is, just one goddamn thing after another. A new heart was somehow supposed to be my bloody-red carpet of victory." (p. 7)

At age 4, Pensack's mother died of IHSS, Idiopathic Hypertrophic Subaortic Stenosis--now known as HCM, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a genetically inherited, progressive disease of heart muscle that results in early death. At age 15, Pensack receives the terrible news of his own fate--the disease afflicts both Pensack and his older brother--and thus launches a life of near death experiences, numerous hospitalizations, early experiences at the National Institutes of Health with early investigators of the disease, pursuit of his own medical training and eventual specialty training in psychiatry, marriage and children, and ultimately, the waiting and eventual transplantation of a younger man's heart into his chest at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center when Pensack was 43.

Raising Lazarus tells of Pensack's journey through much of this, including his descent into madness, his fury and anger with medical colleagues, his poignant relationship with the heart surgeon who eventually performs the transplant, and the importance of his family in his refusal to die. While much of the book tells of the events leading to the transplant and post-operative period of Pensack's life, the reader learns of Pensack's early losses, including the death of his mother, and how these experiences shape the values of a gutsy and determined survivor, a man who continually returns to the struggle.


This is an unusual memoir of illness--not only because of Pensack's struggle through his entire adult life with the same disease that took the life of his mother, but because it was written by Pensack and his collaborator, Dwight Williams, a journalist and fiction writer who began to listen to the story of Pensack's life while Pensack waited many months for a new heart as his own was dying. Then during surgery, Williams was permitted to observe the surgery and follow Pensack in the period after his transplant.

The result: a memoir that reads like fiction, poetic and reflective, suspenseful, including a section of the book that tells from the first person perspective of Pensack's surgical experience, post-operative madness, and near death after his transplant . Through a narrative manipulation, Pensack and Williams capture these tense and fragile days and weeks, when it was not clear to Pensack's family, friends including Williams, and the reader who reads the story for the first time, whether the new heart will allow Pensack an extension on his genetic fate.

This memoir, like the film The Doctor with William Hurt (see this database) examines the dynamic of the physician who is ill. The voice of the ill physician allows for nuanced insights into the practice of high-tech medicine, and allows the reader to confirm what we already know to be true: that caring and technology must be joined if we are to respond to the deep dread and uncertainty involved in life-threatening illness.


G. .P. Putnam's Sons

Place Published

New York



Page Count