In this episode of on YOUR HEALTH® Adam & Cristy talk with Dr. Peter Rizzolo, Author and Retired Professor of Family Medicine at UNC, about his book, Forbidden Harvest.

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When the resources of a strained medical system reach critically low levels, one doctor bypasses ethical concerns to act, creating a sophisticated network that saves lives but which also threatens to destroy his career.

When doctors inform Tom Bradshaw that his 12-year-old son, Link, is having a heart attack, he turns incredulous. But the relative stability Link experiences after his initial episode is soon offset by a flurry of negative test results, each of which seems to illuminate more parts of an increasingly threatening outlook. Born with a congenital heart defect, Link isin need of that most precarious of operations: a heart transplant. He finds himself navigating not only hospitals, complex prognoses and more tests, but the lingering grief he feels for his mother, who perished in an auto accident a year prior. Still, he manages to make friends with Marty, a cancer patient, who launches a spying operation that unwittingly discovers the dilemma on which the novel hinges:

Dr. Kenneth Bernholtz, a family friend of the Bradshaws’, has been pilfering organs from dead patients in an exasperated attempt to perfect a technology that preserves harvested organs longer than usual. Several races against time ensue as Link’s family struggles to procure him a working heart, Marty triesto determine her fate amid rounds of chemo treatment, and Dr. Bernholtz endeavors to forestall the collapse of his covert operation, which violates official procedures, in an attempt to coordinate more crucial transplantations.

Rendered in snappy prose, the narrative nonetheless unfolds at a consistent pace; the dialogue is mostly fresh, the characters, sensitive and realistic. The novel’s climax, which pivots on the tension between patients’ rights and the medical community’s task of saving lives, highlights the profound moral ambiguity and emotional tumult of this still highly relevant issue in bioethics. Bernholtz, committed to his cause to a fault, provides a moving case study in the limits of compassion.

A compelling medical drama, written in taut prose, that addresses with tact, humor, poignancy and sophistication the question of what individuals in desperate circumstances owe to each other.

DAVE GIOIA REVIEW (author of Valley of Saint Anne, and Himba Pond)

“Peter Rizzolo’s Forbidden Harvest is a story well told about a father’s and grandmother’s anguish over the deteriorating heart of their young son and grandson and the lengths to which the boy’s physician godfather, a researcher endeavoring to dramatically extend the amount of time organs can remain viable for transplantation, will go to procure a heart for him.

Himself a physician, Rizzolo does an admirable job of informing the story with just enough medical knowledge and detail to make it authentic and understandable to the lay reader while keeping things light and maintaining a brisk pace throughout. This is no mean feat. The tendency of writers expert in a subject when writing about it is to burden the reader with too much specialized information, so it’s a testament to Rizzolo’s restraint as a writer and concern for the reader that he manages not to. While not a lawyer, Rizzolo is also well versed in the legal ramifications of medical malpractice, both civil and criminal, and the procedure by which cases move through the courts and he handles this aspect of the story with equal aplomb.

One can see Rizzolo’s years of experience dealing with patients in the way he treats his characters; compassionately and with an eye to their mental, emotional and physical condition. The result is fully formed characters the reader comes to know well, like and care about.

At the heart of Forbidden Harvest is 13-year-old Link who is diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and hospitalized early in the story and remains in hospital, his condition ever worsening, until near the story’s end. Link is befriended by 16-year-old Marty, herself a patient suffering from osteosarcoma who has had a leg amputated below the knee and is undergoing chemotherapy. Link is just arriving at puberty and is a bit awkward and shy around Marty. Marty, on the other hand, is outgoing and loves to tease, at times sexily, and the interplay of their personalities makes for a delightful relationship and fun reading. Marty’s antics are irrepressible and her curiosity about autopsies leads her and Link to hatch a scheme to enable her to observe one unnoticed and her doing so is the fulcrum of the story.

Link’s father, Tom Bradshaw Jr., is a wealthy Seattle industrialist and the CEO of TBI, the manufacturing firm Tom Sr., now dead, founded. In addition to being anguished about Link’s condition, Tom Jr. is bedeviled by the memory of his wife’s death in a collision with a truck one rainy night when the two were returning from a dinner party and tormented by the fact that the only reason she was behind the wheel and died instead of him was because he’d had a few too many glasses of wine.

Tom Jr.’s mother, 60-year-old Lydia, is every bit the matriarch of the family; strong, assertive and decisive and equally as concerned about her son’s melancholy as she is her grandson’s poor health. Lydia is a woman who, like Tom Jr., will do anything within her power and spare no expense to save Link’s life and she and Tom Jr. are fortunate to be in a position financially to make things happen. The irony of their situation, of course, is that all the money in the world can’t move Link’s name higher in the donor recipient waiting list. He must wait his turn like everyone else and hope that he doesn’t die waiting, as most of the people on the list do. Throughout Forbidden Harvest Rizzolo keeps the reader mindful that Link is in a race against time and it makes for a very suspenseful story.

The hero of Forbidden Harvest is Dr. Kenneth Bernholtz, a medical researcher at Children’s Hospital, and the villain Dr. Gamal Faysal, a Saudi national and medical director at Hakim Medical Center, a hospital purchased by a Saudi prince for the purpose of attending to the children of wealthy Saudi families who require organ transplantation. The two are very different men and initially form an alliance that seems to have a strictly altruistic and humanitarian purpose to provide more organs to Hakim Medical Center and, so, save more children’s lives but it soon develops that Dr. Faysal is not so high-minded.

Rizzolo’s portrayal of Dr. Faysal is an interesting one. Gamal is an imperious character, polite and reserved, cool and calculating and, above all, secretive. Like all good villains engaged in an illegal and extremely profitable enterprise, when threatened with exposure he springs into action and will stop at nothing to protect himself, including having those threatening him murdered. It’s to Rizzolo’s credit and indicative of his thoughtfulness as a writer that Gamal’s villainy comes across as having nothing at all to do with his nationality or the beliefs and customs and practices of Saudi Arabia and everything to do with the fact that he’s a flawed human being whose callousness and greed prove to be his undoing.

Rizzolo does an equally interesting job in his portrayal of Dr. Bernholtz. Ken is a sensitive, introspective man and, like Link, a bit shy and awkward and especially so when he’s with Lydia, with whom he was romantically involved before she met and married Tom Sr. and whom he still loves. The three maintained a close friendship and it was to be near them and especially Lydia that Ken accepted the position at Children’s Hospital and moved to Seattle.

At the time of Link’s diagnosis and hospitalization Ken has for several years been clandestinely harvesting organs from children during autopsies at Children’s Hospital and sending them to Hakim Medical Center for implantation in Saudi children, so it isn’t Link’s illness and need for a new heart that causes Ken to cross the ethical and legal line but his overwhelming desire to save children and frustration with the Human Subjects Committee when it denies his proposal to use human organs for the promising research to extend storage time he’s been doing using animal organs. It’s Ken’s love of Lydia and her rekindled love of him as much as his desire to save Link’s life that causes him to procure a heart outside of the system and he does so having decided to reveal all to the hospital administration when the heart is successfully implanted in Link, knowing full well that doing so will end his career. He can’t do otherwise. Like all good heroes he’s an honorable man.

Caught up in the unfolding drama are Dr. Frank Tupelo, an intern at Children’s Hospital, and Tina Carroll, an OR nurse at Hakim Medical Center, and their flirtatious romance while trying to outrun Dr. Faysal’s goons is charming. Squared off against each other legally are Ken’s malpractice lawyer, Charlotte Richards, and county prosecutor Gianni Rubino. Rizzolo’s portrayal of Charlotte, an older woman and herself a former prosecutor, is an endearing one. She’s a hard-nosed straight talking attorney who’s always hungry, whose feet always hurt and whose antennae are always out to detect anything she might use to thwart the prosecution’s case. Rizzolo gives Gianni just enough lawyerly slickness in his appearance and smugness in his attitude to make him ring true as a self-aggrandizing public official but not enough to make him unlikeable. Gianni and Charlotte are equally skilled at the cat and mouse game prosecutors and defense attorneys play pre-trial to try to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s position and Rizzolo’s description of the one they play is engaging and entertaining

Rizzolo has written an impressive story that held my interest from beginning to end and kept me guessing as to what Ken’s fate, if not Link’s, would ultimately be and I found it to be perfectly believable and appropriate. While Forbidden Harvest is intended for adults I recommend it to young adults and hope they read it. I know they will enjoy reading about Link and Marty’s relationship and find their fight to survive their life threatening illnesses inspirational.”