This is a must-read for everyone who wants to understand what it’s like to face your mortality at a young age. Dr. Kalanithi died aged 37 in March 2015. He survived only a year post-diagnosis of stage IV metastatic lung cancer. The book is essentially Paul reminiscing about his life, his youth, and his love. He originally wasn’t planning on becoming a doctor; he ended up on that path because of his fascination with death (he could have easily become an author instead) and he thought that neurosurgeons understood ephemerality and transience better than anyone. Also, his Father and a lot of his relatives were medics and so that helped.
The book paints such a heartfelt and vivid picture of key aspects of his life – it seems as if you aren’t just observing his life but present with him in those memories. He was a great writer. What strikes me is his bravery; he doesn’t complain (“Why me?” – which he answers with “Why not me?”) in the book. He accepts the reality of his situation and tries to make the most of what time he has left. I would give this book 5 out of 5 stethoscopes. I particularly enjoyed his comments on his experiences in the cadaver lab. He said that when students practiced dissections on plastic cadavers they found it comical and absurd. They struggled to give realism to these models. When they practiced with real cadavers they tried to reverse the polarity due to the sorrow felt when cutting into the flesh of your deceased fellow man. When Breath Becomes Air is a tragedy but its a story of bravery and strength and courage. I don’t feel that I’ve done this book justice with this review so I will link to others who elaborate better where I’ve failed. Try to put yourself in this position. You are a neurosurgical resident with only 15 months left of your training. You have earned your senior’s respect, won national awards and have fielded job offers at major universities. Your Stanford mentor says that you would be the number one candidate for any job you applied to. Then suddenly you start losing weight and experience back pain. You know that due to your young age (35) this can only mean cancer. You visit a physician and are now looking at an image of a CT scan of your lungs. Widely disseminated cancer, innumerable tumors, spine deformed, a lobe of liver obliterated.
You are no longer in the radiology unit in scrubs and a white coat; instead you find yourself in a patient’s gown tethered to an IV pole. How depressing and sorrowful must this feel? To take this sorrow and write a book and teach mankind to appreciate time is fortitude at its finest.
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“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”