Cloaked in mystery and wonder when first performed three decades ago,
the coronary bypass has become a routine medical procedure-yet it still amounts
to a chillingly close encounter with death. Surgeons slice and hack their way
through the patient’s skin and breastbone, literally stop the heart and pack it
in ice while grafting leg veins to circumvent clogged blood vessels. A sobering
prospect for anyone, but for Amato-an athletic, politically active,
deep-thinking history professor in his mid-fifties-it inspires a personal
journey of reflection and remembrance.
Headstrong and accustomed to being in control, Amato initially spurns his
doctor’s advice to undergo a bypass, opting instead for a regimen of exercise,
prayer and dietary change that he hopes will reverse his potentially fatal
arterial blockages. Its failure is but one of his humbling experiences as
surgery draws nearer. Drawing little comfort from assurances that his prospects
are excellent for surviving the operation and resuming his busy life, he
travels from Minnesota to his boyhood home of Detroit, where he visits the
graves of his father and grandparents and bids “provisional farewells” to
people and places he has long known. Despite his misgivings, the surgery goes
without a hitch, and Amato emerges physically and spiritually healthier, with a
keener sense of what matters most in life.
Bypass is simultaneously a straightforward account of a medical procedure as
seen through one patient’s eyes and, as the subtitle makes clear, a personal
memoir. Amato writes at length of his parents and grandparents, of childhood
peccadilloes, of his passion for golf, courting his wife, helping establish the
history program at a new college on the Minnesota prairie. Of particular
interest is his deep religious faith, and how the prospect of dying young
forces this proud intellectual to surrender his fate to the God of his peasant
To read this book is to become intimately acquainted with Amato, warts and all.
One marvels at the breadth of his knowledge and the richness of his life’s
experiences; shares his fear of the unknown and his zest for life; and frowns
at his impatience and bouts of self-centeredness. Yet one comes away with a
sense that, ever the student, he has learned his lessons well and passed his
toughest test. Outwardly, he concludes, bypass left a scar on his chest.
“Inwardly, it set death’s skull on the desk of my mind. It told me time was
preciously scarce, and I must work hard. There is only so much time to achieve
one’s heart’s desires.”
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