In his posthumously published “When Breath Becomes Air,” Paul Kalanithi gets straight to the sudden turning point in his life: the day the Stanford neurosurgery chief resident looked at a scan showing he had advanced cancer and likely little time left.
What follows is a poignant account of his life, his quest to find meaning, his efforts to retain his humanity in the grind of becoming a doctor and, ultimately, his thoughts on dying.
As he and his wife, Lucy, grapple with whether to become parents in their remaining time together, she asks him: “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
He replies: “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
The exchange captures Kalanithi’s full-throttled approach to living.
One summer while in college, he had to choose between an internship at a research center or a job at a lakeside camp. Or his words, “I could either study meaning or I could experience it.” He picked the latter.
Back on campus, Kalanithi summarized his dovetailing interests: “I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in an (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world.”
It is no surprise, then, that Kalanithi chose the demanding field of neurosurgery. His reflection on the practice, responsibility, idealism and fallibility of medicine is a must-read for those in the field and those touched by it.
When cancer struck, he went back to literature to understand his experience and make sense of death. Ultimately, he made a decision: “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
A reader can’t help but regret that Kalanithi – the introspective doctor, the intellectually driven scientist and the compassionate humanitarian – no longer walks this Earth, sharing his gifts. Doctors should learn from his compassion; all of us should learn from his passion for life.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
Random House, 256 pages