Book review: When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery by Frank T. Vertosick Jr.


With poignant insight and humor, Frank Vertosick Jr., MD, describes some of the greatest challenges of his career, including a six-week-old infant with a tumor in her brain, a young man struck down in his prime by paraplegia, and a minister with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in his skull. Told through intimate portraits of Vertosick’s patients and unsparing yet fascinatingly detailed descriptions of surgical procedures, When the Air Hits Your Brain—the culmination of decades spent struggling to learn an unforgiving craft—illuminates both the mysteries of the mind and the realities of the operating room.


I picked this one up on a whim, via audio, and from the very first minute, I was hooked. This was such an insightful book with a perfect balance of the author telling his story without making the whole thing about himself, and enough of the science without anything becoming too complex and heavy.

The stories Vertosick decided to tell in this book were incredibly interesting and there was a good mix of drama, hope, and tragedy. I appreciated that how the stories were told didn’t make the author’s life seem all the time glamorous, shocking and exciting, there was plenty of honesty in here. We got to see the reality of life as a neurosurgeon where small decisions could mean life or death.

I won’t lie, I did tear up several times while listening to this one. The book features uplifting stories but it also features ones of sadness. Fair warning there is some tough stuff to read in here, like the story of incurable brain cancer in a little girl called Rebecca, and accidents during surgery that have life-changing and fatal repercussions. There was never a time during these sadder moments that I felt the author was exploiting the story just to make a better book, you could tell the mistakes he’d made throughout his career had had a lasting effect on his memory.

When reading some of the lower-rated reviews for this book, I picked up a lot on the fact that people thought the author was arrogant or flippant whilst telling us some of the harder bits to read. I didn’t personally pick up on this myself, and I find it quite funny that this was a sticking point for people when he literally dedicated a chapter to ‘surgical psychopathy’. In a job where the slightest tremor of your hand could lead to the death of a patient, it’s unsurprising that these people need to put up barriers towards their emotions. That being said, as I mentioned earlier in this review, I think Vertosick does show his emotions throughout and offers up very plainly the reality of his time as a surgeon.

Overall, I loved this book so much and now I’m on the hunt for other medical biographies of a similar ilk.

Please note, this was originally published in 1997 and spans Vertosick’s career from the ’60s onwards. Some of the medical terminologies he uses are now out of date. Also, graphic descriptions of surgery and all that comes with it!

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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