Paul Kalanithi, a vital neurosurgeon, after devoting ten years to his medical career, is diagnosed with cancer. His gift to us is this book, When Breath Becomes Air, in which he reviews his life of good luck, stellar achievements, a dedication to medicine, and a loving family.
This first person narrative includes a Foreword by Abraham Verghese, who is also a doctor and author of Cutting With Stone. Paul Kalanithi died at age 36, from Stage IV lung cancer. After diagnosis, he began the long process every patient must do to make treatment decisions, choose whether to live like most people, who feel they have a long life ahead of them, or begin to prepare for imminent death.
The lucidity of the writing and the pace of his life working full time at the hospital, while also being a patient, will stay with the reader, page after page.
Doctors are mere mortals and the battle to beat cancer does not favor one individual over the other. Kalanithi’s process throughout treatment is no different than other patients, but his medical knowledge helps him make decisions from an informed perspective. With his patients and now with his own health crisis, the pivotal issue is always “What makes a virtuous and meaningful life?”
Looking at the sum of one’s work at such an early age must surely feel like a live lived only halfway. Yet Kalanithi strikes the reader as a person who loves his work and perhaps achieved double what the average person does in a day. He details his inability to take on the five stages of death: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, until he decided to reverse them. Surely his medical training was an aid in tackling the diagnosis with a vengeance.
When Breath Becomes Air was guided into publication with help from the author’s widow, also a doctor. In the Epilogue, Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, shares the details of Paul’s passage through life to the end. As she writes, she puts the pieces together for herself and for us to fully understand the heft of his absence. His ultimate transformation from doctor to patient, and from husband to father, if only for a brief time,
As readers, we are drawn in to the options and decisions Paul and his family are faced with, and are perhaps calmed by the lucid thinking about life, death, and the enormous loss of a person… his decision to look death in the eye, with steadfast integrity and grace.