At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.
When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student in search of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.
A short memoir that has sat on my shelf for some time, despite being popular on Instagram; a place that is very influential for me when deciding what book to pick up. At just over 200 pages I was looking for something short and serious prior to something lighter for a blogtour.
I read this in under 24 hours, very accessible and easy to read. Told in two parts, essentially before and after the cancer diagnosis. Paul was a hard working, ambitious neurosurgeon, married to Lucy and pretty much living the life he was expecting, his marriage was not without problems but mostly life was good. He was interested in the relationship aspect of medicine, the partnership between physician and patient working together to treat the problem and move towards an acceptable future for the patient following significant surgery.
Paul suspected cancer, he knew what his symptoms could be so the diagnosis while devastating was not a huge surprise. With Paul’s knowledge of being so often on the other side, he was able to reflect more on that relationship with him in the other role. Thinking about his future, with the knowledge that it was significantly shorter than he had previously assumed and considering what he wanted that future to look like was insightful reading. Thoughts on what makes a life worth living and decisions about stopping treatment, I found very interesting, such a subjective concept that is often decided objectively, but Paul highlighted discussions with his Doctor about the impact on treatment and the potential effect this could have on his future, practising as a neurosurgeon.
In this honest memoir, Paul Kalanithi opens his heart to share this gruelling journey, continuing to live in the face of death, his story is sad, but not tragic. However his death is a loss for his friends and family but also I expect for his chosen profession, his future practice and research. While this wasn’t the sad book I was expecting it was brave and moving throughout and I confess I didn’t make it to the final pages without shedding a tear.
A powerful and very accessible memoir, moving and brave but thought provoking and honest. Yes, I’d recommend.
About the Author
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer. He held degrees in English Literature, human biology, and history and philosophy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from Yale School of Medicine. He also received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.
His reflections on doctoring and illness have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Paris Review Daily.
Kalanithi died in March 2015, aged 37. He is survived by his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia.