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 asking 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.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?
Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
I read this book in a day, once I started I just could not put it down. It starts with Paul talking about being ill in the first chapter, he knows something isn’t right and thinks he knows what is happening. You see him looking over scans of himself and you know it’s bad news.
The second part is him talking about his life before and during medical school. There is just something about him that seems like he would make a fabulous doctor, something about him that makes him want to find out not only about life but death.
The third and last part of the book is about his cancer, how he copes, his dreams and thought about dying. He talks about what it is doing to his body, his career and his relationship with those around him. It’s a very clinical viewpoint, one that you would expect from a doctor. There is no screaming and writhing in pain, there is focused though and an almost clinical detachment about what he is going through. He wants to know how long he has so he can plan his time but as we all know, time can’t be measured when it comes to cancer. What did happen is that his illness made him become a better doctor. He and his wife decided to go ahead and have a child, to live each day knowing that each could be his last. He said as long as he was breathing he was alive and living…. that in itself has got to be a huge thing to achieve.
There is a lot of pain but also a lot of hope and the way he faced his own mortality was just incredible! I don’t think I would have been as brave as what he was in those final days. As I read the epilog written by his wife the tears streamed down my face. I haven’t read many books written by those who are on deaths door but this made an impact with me on how he dealt with his diagnosis and dealt with staring death in the face.