When Breath Becomes Air
January 12, 2016
For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naïve medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything," he wrote. "Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.'" When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both. Advance praise for When Breath Becomes Air "Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi's memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life."--Atul Gawande "Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met Paul Kalanithi will both mourn his death and benefit from his life. This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor--I would recommend it to anyone, everyone."--Ann Patchett
As soon as I saw the blurb for this book by Paul Kalanithi I knew it would probably interest me. This is the story (indeed mostly the autobiography) of Paul Kalanithi a talented neurosurgeon who finds he has cancer at a fairly young age. The first part of the book concerns some of his time at school, deciding whether to be a doctor, and then his degree, training and medical school as well as his life in general. While this part of the book was was interesting it became more compelling for me after that. I found his consideration of the issues of dealing with patients with neurological problems fascinating. Indeed if I have a minor irritation it would be that in talking about patients he has treated there are tantalising glimpses of interest that are not completed with what happened to the patient next
“How little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients “
I really did like this line as well as a number of others. The second half of the book is terribly insightful. Diagnosed with cancer the (self) portrait of a doctor considering his own mortality is moving and revealing. He takes us – quite gently – through some of the hells he has to pass through calmly and clearly. In doing so he ponders on literature, religion and science as well as mortality. He goes through, and faces, humour, hope, uncertainty, frustration as well as offering an awakening understanding of what it is like to be a seriously ill patient at the hands of a doctor himself.
If you can read the last chapter/10% of this book with ease you are a different person to me. Written by his wife after Paul’s death it calmly narrates his passing. If the idea of this book interests you do read it – I loved it and learned from it too.
Note – I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review